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Assessor Noguez under pressure to resign after charges

October 18, 2012|By Jason Song, Jack Dolan, and Ruben Vives

There was growing pressure on embattled L.A. County Assessor John Noguez to resign Thursday after he and two others were charged in a widening corruption case.

Noguez will continue to receive his full $197,000 salary unless he is convicted of a crime, resigns or is removed from office.

County Supervisors Michael D. Antonovich and Don Knabe have called for Noguez to resign.

FULL COVERAGE: Corruption probe inside assessor's office

"While we have a legal system based on innocent until proven guilty, in the court of public trust, Mr. Noguez has violated the confidence and expectations of the voters who elected him," Knabe said in a statement. "He should resign his position as assessor, and allow our dedicated employees to move forward and work diligently to rebuild the trust of the people of Los Angeles County.

Antonovich said he wanted to conduct a nationwide search for a replacement if Noguez does step down and that Santos Kreimann, who is the active head of the assessor’s office, should be a candidate if he wants to apply.

Kreimann “is there to restore order and credibility to the department and he’s done that superbly,” Antonovich said.

Antonovich has backed Measure A, which asks voters whether they believe the position of assessor should be an appointed or elected one. The vote is merely advisory; the state Constitution would have to be changed to make the assessor’s office an appointed job. 

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas stopped short of calling for Noguez’s departure, but said he doubted Noguez has a political future.

"I’ve always been reluctant to jump the gun with respect to the fate of anyone who has been accused of wrongdoing but not convicted. However, I will say that I think he’s been substantially harmed and that repairing the damage, in terms of holding public office, is unlikely,” Ridley-Thomas said.

Noguez was arrested Wednesday morning along with his aide Mark McNeil and campaign contributor Ramin Salari. The three face 32 criminal charges as part of a political corruption probe into whether the office lowered property owners' tax bills in exchange for contributions and other favors.

Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said Noguez accepted $185,000 in bribes from Salari between February 2010 and September 2010.

FULL COVERAGE: Corruption probe inside assessor's office

Noguez's attorney, Michael Proctor, criticized the investigation as one-sided and said that prosecutors had reneged on a promise that Noguez would get a chance to explain his side of the story before they moved forward.

Noguez took a voluntary paid leave of absence in June.

Under state law, elected officials are entitled to their pay regardless of whether they report for work.

Noguez could be removed from office only by another vote of the people -- in a recall, for example -- or if he were convicted of a felony. Conviction on a lesser charge could also force him out if the offense was linked to his official duties.

In an email to office employees, Kreimann said, "While we are disheartened to hear of the charges, we know that it does not reflect the work of all office of the assessor employees."

"Today I stand by my statement that the good men and women of the office of the assessor are extremely bright, talented and dedicated public service professionals that deserve special recognition for their outstanding efforts in working to restore the public trust in our operations," he wrote in the email.

Last year, distric attorney's investigators began probing secret, improper tax breaks granted to more than 100 wealthy Westside property owners since Noguez’s election. They also started looking into complaints from assessor’s office employees who claimed they were under pressure to lower property taxes for clients of prominent Noguez contributors, like Salari.

Salari made three loans to Noguez during 2010 -- one for $80,000 and two for $50,000, according to the charging documents. (Investigators are also calling a $5,000 campaign contribution a bribe.) A review of the bank records demonstrates "sudden repayments" began shortly after reporters from the Los Angeles Times began making inquiries regarding allegations of misconduct at the assessor's office, according to the declaration of a district attorney’s investigator.

Cooley described the case as the most significant public corruption scandal involving a county official in decades.

"Honest taxpayers and the public at large, it seems, were to be damned," Cooley said. "Residents must have confidence that their government is not for sale to the highest bidder or the highest briber."

All three men have steadfastly denied any wrongdoing throughout the course of the investigation.

Noguez's attorney, Michael Proctor, wrote in an email to The Times, "By arresting Mr. Noguez today, the district attorney's office is communicating that this was not in fact a search for truth, but a one-sided, result-driven investigation aimed at 'getting' Mr. Noguez."

Salari's attorney, Mark Werksman, said his client "advocated tirelessly for property owners and obtained large reductions in property taxes based upon the merits of each case." Werksman added: "There was no corrupt relationship between John Noguez and Ramin Salari and any employees of the assessor's office."

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