Omar Haroon took a job in the L.A. County Assessor's office in October 2011 — just before all hell broke loose. Within months, the office was raided by Deputy Attorney's investigators looking into allegations that Assessor John Noguez had arranged tax breaks for his friends and supporters.
The upper ranks of the office were saying that Noguez was the target of a political witchhunt. But several co-workers gave Haroon their own accounts of shady practices.
"I knew right away that, no matter what kind of spin people tried to put on it, this was all very real," Haroon says.
Noguez eventually was charged with dozens of counts of bribery. Although he has been on leave since June 2012, he continues to draw his $200,000 salary. After spending five months behind bars, he is out on bail and awaiting trial. A preliminary hearing is expected to start in late September.
Haroon, 37, is now one of a handful of viable candidates to succeed him. While most of the problems inside the office have been addressed, Haroon says that several of Noguez's allies remain in the executive ranks.
"His whole network is still there in place," he says. "As Angelenos, we deserve better."
County assessor is not a glamorous position. The job involves setting property assessments for every parcel in the county, which determines how much the government will receive in property taxes. The only people who paid attention to the last election, in 2010, were those with a vested interest in the outcome. Noguez raked in contributions from tax agents, who argue for property tax reductions and typically take a percentage of any decrease.
The dozen candidates in the June 3 primary all vow to reform the office. Those who have put the greatest effort into their campaigns are Jeff Prang, a special assistant in Noguez's executive office; Haroon, an appraiser; and John Morris, a veteran prosecutor. Prang, seen by some as the frontrunner, has raised $285,000, more than any other candidate.
Prang, 51, is a longtime West Hollywood councilman and a veteran of local Democratic politics. He has the backing of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, the L.A. County Democratic Party and dozens of elected officials.
Prang argues that he is best qualified to be assessor because he has more management experience than the other candidates. Before he worked for Noguez, he was an assistant city manager in Pico Rivera and an aide to former Sheriff Lee Baca. (He also launched a short-lived campaign for the state Assembly in 2011.)
But several other candidates argue that Prang is tainted by his affiliation with Noguez. Prang has said he had "no inkling" of the brewing scandal when he was hired. However, by the time he came on board, it had been widely reported that the district attorney had opened an investigation. Noguez's chief of staff had resigned, and lower-level employees were beginning to speak out about the cozy relationship between Noguez and tax agent Ramin Salari. As revelations continued, Prang's job was to help limit the damage, until that became impossible.
In an interview with L.A. Weekly, Prang says that initially he believed the allegations were politically motivated. He offered to help stabilize the office.
"I thought John needed some assistance communicating his position," he says.
At one point, Prang drafted a rebuttal to an L.A. Weekly story in which he blamed allegations on "unknown sources" and "known liars." (The draft was obtained via a public records request; it was never sent.)
Prang now says that, had he known what was going on, he would not have risked his own reputation. "That would be like swimming to a sinking ship," he says.
Prang's attitude changed, he says, when he and Noguez met with Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky in May, soon after a DA raid. At that meeting, Noguez admitted to Yaroslavsky that he had received a $185,000 "loan" from Salari, the tax agent whose clients had received improper reductions.
"It was a mortifying experience," Prang says now. In the hallway afterward, he says he told Noguez he would have to step down. "You're done," he said.
Noguez still hasn't resigned. But Prang says he was instrumental in negotiating the deal whereby Noguez took a voluntary leave from the assessor's office.
"I can't help the fact that I worked there during John Noguez's tenure," Prang says. But, he argues, "I negotiated his exit and I conceived and implemented a plan to bring in a reform administration."
Morris, a 24-year veteran of the DA's office, faults the arrangement because it allowed Noguez to continue earning his salary. He calls Prang the "establishment" candidate.
"He's somebody that Noguez brought in, from Noguez's point of view, to help cover things up," Morris says.
Morris, 50, is the head deputy in the DA's health care fraud unit, and was not involved in prosecuting the Noguez case. After the scandal broke, Morris says he offered to help the county clean up the assessor's office but was rebuffed.
So he decided to jump into the race. A Republican, he won the backing of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. He raised $80,000 and picked up endorsements from the L.A. Times and the Los Angeles Newspaper Group. The latter approvingly cited his seven-page plan for reform.
However, many proposals in the plan have already been implemented: He vowed not to take contributions from tax agents, but those contributions have already been banned by the county Board of Supervisors. He said he would go over transactions involving Noguez and his co-defendants to search for further criminal behavior, even though the DA's office and an auditor have done just that.
Morris acknowledged that some of his proposals are already in effect, and said he would have to review the situation once in office. If elected, he would also need to get an appraiser's license within a year, as would Prang.
To Carlos Tovar, a supervising appraiser who served on the union endorsement committee, that's not good enough. "If you've never worked in our department, you're not going to know what you're doing," Tovar says.
The endorsement committee was unable to reach a consensus, with its vote split about evenly between Morris and Haroon. The committee also interviewed Prang and John Wong, a former member of the Assessment Appeals Board, but ruled out both of them.
Tovar backed Haroon.
"The department needs to be cleaned up," Tovar says. "He has been in the trenches, has done the grunt work. He knows what it takes."
Haroon is a frontline appraiser with no management experience. Before he joined the office, he worked in real estate and then as a financial adviser for UBS. He also set up independent investment funds, including one that was in accordance with Shariah principles.
His parents immigrated from Pakistan, where they had direct experience of government corruption. "I've heard stories and seen corruption in other parts of the world," he says. "It's so unacceptable for it to happen here."
Haroon, a Democrat, has raised $105,000. He says his plan is to root out some of the remaining Noguez allies from the assessor's office upper management ranks. Like the other candidates, he also stresses the importance of replacing the assessor's antiquated computer system.
Haroon's big moment in the campaign came when he sued Prang over his ballot designation and won. Prang wanted to call himself a "deputy assessor," but Haroon's lawyer argued that the title is reserved for frontline deputies, not political appointees. Prang was compelled to change his designation to "special assistant."
Afterward, Haroon says, a number of assessor staff came up to congratulate him. Prang called the episode "political grandstanding."
"His claim to fame is that he successfully challenged my ballot designation," Prang says. "I would like to hear his vision of management of the office. He doesn't talk about that at all."