Ramin Salari, the tax agent at the center of a district attorney's probe, fought back today against allegations that he wields undue influence over Assessor John Noguez.
At a tax appeal hearing at the county Hall of Administration, Salari took aim at his most prominent accuser: David Zoraster.
Zoraster, a former Noguez deputy, quit the office in December in protest of Salari's alleged influence over Noguez and over the appraisal process.
At issue is the valuation of two apartment buildings in Hermosa Beach. Salari is seeking reductions in their values totaling $70 million, which would result in an $800,000 tax break for his client. Zoraster opposed the reductions, and resigned after being pulled off the cases.
At today's hearing, Salari challenged Zoraster's appraisal methods, and appeared to win over
the two-member panel that sits in judgment of tax appeals. At one point,
Salari mocked Zoraster as "the appraisal God of the office."
Salari declined to comment outside the hearing. Zoraster was not present and could not be reached for comment. He is expected to be subpoenaed to testify when the hearing resumes on May 2.
Under questioning from Salari today, appraiser Suzanne Johnston said that Zoraster encouraged her to use two "comparable sales" to support a higher value on the properties than Salari would like. One of those properties is in San Diego.
That drew objections from both members of the Assessment Appeals Board panel -- Leslie Bellamy and James Kim -- who said it was extremely unusual to use a property so far away. The board disregarded the second comparable as well, finding that it, too, was used in error.
Asked by the panelists why she had used the two comparables, Johnston said, "I relied on the expertise of Mr. Zoraster."
Asked why he wasn't there to defend his work, Johnston said, "He should be here."
"This is getting stranger and stranger," said Bellamy. "This isn't a major case, to me... I don't understand why it's getting the attention it's getting. There's definitely a problem."
Louis Reyes, a spokesman for Assessor John Noguez, said that Zoraster was removed from the Hermosa Beach cases because he was not supposed to be involved in appraisals. Noguez hired Zoraster, a veteran of the appraisal business, as a "special assistant" to help instruct appraisers last year.
"His purview was to teach and help people understand appraisal techniques, not to get involved with appraisals," Reyes said. "Special assistants don't have any jurisdiction over appraisals."
Zoraster was removed from the cases by Chris Carlos, who was then Noguez's acting chief of staff. Carlos, a former lobbyist for Athens Services, a trash hauling firm, was later installed as the permanent chief of staff.
But in a surprise move, Carlos resigned from Noguez's office on Monday. The resignation was announced today. No reason was given, but it appeared that discontent within the office played a role in his departure.
The district attorney's public integrity unit received a complaint about
Noguez last November, and launched an inquiry. Several Salari clients
have said they were pressured to contribute to Noguez's campaign for
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Soon after Noguez was elected in 2010, veteran appraisers began to complain that tax agents were dropping his name in an attempt to gain favorable treatment. In response, Noguez issued a memo on March 31, 2011, in which he acknowledged that he has met thousands of property owners.
"If you know me, I rarely refer to people as property owners; they are my friends, or in some cases, my family," he wrote. "I will take the time to listen and offer help where possible. It is my goal that all of our employees share this 'taxpayer-friendly' attitude."
However, he went on to emphasize that employees must behave ethically and avoid the appearance of impropriety.
"Simply put, regardless of a property owner's relationship with me or anyone from the Assessor's Office, we will value property at its fair market value in accordance with the law," Noguez wrote.