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New corruption charges filed against Noguez

The assessor, an aide and a tax consultant are accused of illegally reducing taxes on up to 18 more Los Angeles County properties.

April 23, 2013|By Jack Dolan, Los Angeles Times
  • More charges were filed against tax consultant Ramin Salari, center, flanked by attorneys Mark Hathaway, left, and Mark Werksman.
More charges were filed against tax consultant Ramin Salari, center, flanked… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

The corruption investigation into the Los Angeles County assessor's office broadened Tuesday with prosecutors filing dozens of new charges against embattled Assessor John Noguez, one of his former top aides and a tax consultant.

The three were originally arrested in October in an alleged scheme to trade bribes for lower property tax bills, costing the county $1.16 million in revenue. The new charges filed Tuesday bring the alleged loss to $9.8 million, prosecutors said.

Noguez is Los Angeles County's elected assessor, responsible for determining the taxable value of more than 2.3 million pieces of real estate.

Prosecutors allege that Noguez accepted bribes from consultant Ramin Salari to lower property tax assessments for some of Salari's wealthy clients — many of them on the Westside — who in turn typically paid Salari 50% of any tax refunds they received.

Mark McNeil, one of Noguez's deputies, is accused of making sure property assessments were lowered for the selected property owners.

Noguez, Salari and McNeil have pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.

Prosecutors surprised the three men at a routine hearing in their case Tuesday, charging them with 41 new felonies involving bribes allegedly paid to reduce assessed values on up to 18 additional properties across Los Angeles County, including Pasadena, Torrance and Van Nuys.

Salari was charged in all of the new felonies, which included grand theft and bribery.

Noguez and McNeil were included in 11 new counts of misappropriation of public funds.

Among the new properties, according to prosecutors: The Plaza Las Fuentes complex in Pasadena, where taxes were reduced by $4.2 million; the Tahiti Marina apartments in Marina Del Rey where taxes were reduced by $3.4 million; and a car dealership in the South Bay that disappeared from the tax roll altogether for a time, saving the owners $1.4 million in taxes.

Representatives of those properties did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Prosecutors said the reductions came about as a result of more than $175,000 in bribes Salari paid to a fourth man, former low-level assessor's office employee Scott Schenter.

Schenter was arrested in Mayand accused of illegal reductions that wiped nearly $172 million from the county tax rolls. He has been cooperating with prosecutors since then.

Schenter's attorney, John Powers, said Tuesday that his client "has acknowledged to the district attorney's office that he did in fact receive bribes for reducing property values for Ramin Salari." Powers declined to say how much Schenter has admitted taking, or which properties were involved.

Salari's attorney, Mark Werksman, denied that his client ever bribed Schenter, whom he described as "a loose cannon who will say anything and do anything to make himself important and to get what he wants. What he wants now is a reduced sentence."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Susan Schwartz told reporters outside the courtroom Tuesday that "our investigation is ongoing," but she did not elaborate. Sources close to the inquiry have said investigators are exploring charges against property owners and other assessor's office employees.

Noguez has been on paid leave from his $197,000-per-year assessor's job since June. After his arrest in October, he spent about five months in jail before raising $1-million bail.

The scandal that engulfed him began in January 2011, when supervisors in the assessor's Culver City office discovered that Schenter had inexplicably lowered taxable values on pricey parcels in Brentwood, Pacific Palisades and Beverly Hills.

Schenter subsequently told The Times, and then prosecutors, that he hoped the recipients of those reductions could be persuaded to contribute to Noguez's 2010 election campaign. Many of the homeowners and business owners were Salari's clients.

Noguez, who was a career civil servant at the assessor's office before running for the agency's top job, has said that he may have asked Schenter for help raising campaign money, but denies asking him to lower property values to drum up contributions.

In October, Noguez was charged with taking $185,000 in bribes from Salari in 2010 while he was running for office. Prosecutors alleged that $5,000 of that was in the form of campaign contributions, the rest was paid through personal checks from Salari that Noguez did not report on his financial disclosure forms.

Asked about those payments Tuesday morning, Salari said, "They were loans. I don't know all the reporting requirements, all I know is I did nothing wrong."

Salari has consistently maintained that all of the reductions he got for his clients were warranted, most of them based on the decline in real estate values in the last decade.

Also on Tuesday, prosecutors filed a new motion to seize millions of dollars worth of Salari's assets, including bank accounts, his Scottsdale, Ariz., home, his mother's home in Encino and a Mercedes, a BMW, an Infiniti and a Ferrari.

A judge had ordered all of that property returned to Salari yesterday — before the new charges.

jack.dolan@latimes.com

Times staff writer Doug Smith contributed to this report.

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