Assessor John Noguez took $185,000 in bribes from tax agent Ramin Salari in exchange for reduced property tax assessments for Salari's clients, according to a criminal complaint filed today.
Noguez, who has been on leave since June, was arrested this morning at his home in Huntington Park on 24 counts of bribery, perjury, conspiracy and misappropriation of public funds.
According to the complaint, Noguez instructed an appraiser, Scott Schenter, to “take care of our buddy Ramin.”
Schenter was previously charged for wrongfully lowering the values of over 150 properties, including more than 30 represented by Salari. He told investigators that Noguez told him, “We have to take care of our donors.” According to the complaint, Salari bribed Schenter as well, giving him $100,000.
Salari, who is based in Arizona, faces 23 counts including bribery and
conspiracy. He was arrested this morning at a home in Encino. Also
arrested was Mark McNeil, a former top deputy to Noguez in the
assessor's office. McNeil is accused of reducing the values of
properties represented by Salari, including properties in Santa Monica,
Hermosa Beach and Torrance.
Prosecutors contend that Salari made a $5,000 campaign contribution to Noguez for his 2010 run for county assessor. Separately, Salari cut three checks — for $80,000, $50,000, and $50,000 — directly to Noguez in 2010. Noguez and Salari have claimed to prosecutors that the payments were a loan. They were secured by promissory notes, which stipulated interest payments, and Noguez has repaid some of the money, according to David Demerjian, the head of the D.A.'s public integrity unit.
(Update below: Noguez has repaid $3,000.)
Those payments do not appear on Noguez's statement of economic interests, which resulted in four perjury counts. Salari is also accused of giving $100,000 to Schenter in four installments.
At a press conference this morning, D.A. Steve Cooley the “largest and most significant corruption case” in his long tenure in the D.A.'s office. Cooley will retire in December after 12 years as D.A.
“Residents must have confidence that government is not for sale to the highest bidder or the highest briber,” Cooley said.
Cooley said the government lost out on about $1.16 million in tax revenues due to the scheme.
Noguez's attorney, Michael Proctor, complained that Cooley's office had broken a promise to allow him to present Noguez's side of the story before charges were filed. In a statement, Proctor said the D.A.'s probe was “not in fact a search for truth, but a one-sided, result-driven investigation
aimed at 'getting' Mr. Noguez.”
Noguez's bail was set at $1,385,000. If convicted on all counts, he faces a maximum of 30 years in prison. Noguez was taken into custody about 8:30 a.m. at his home in Huntington Park. At first, he appeared in the courtyard wearing a blue T-shirt, a baseball cap, and handcuffs. D.A. investigators allowed him to change into jeans and a long-sleeved shirt for his trip to county jail. Noguez said nothing as he was led to the back seat of a D.A. investigator's vehicle.
McNeil was arrested at about the same time at his house in West L.A. Salari was in L.A. today for a hearing at the Assessment Appeals Board. His attorney, Mark Werksman, could not be immediately reached for comment. If convicted, Salari faces up to 29 years in prison and McNeil faces up to 20 years.
Update: Mark Werksman, Salari's attorney, called the charges “baseless.”
“He never had a corrupt relationship with John Noguez or anybody else in the county assessor's office,” Werksman said. “He never bribed anyone, and he never got illegal advantage for a client from the assessor's office.”
Asked about the payments to Noguez and Schenter, Werksman said, “I can't comment on the details… I don't know what their evidence is.”
Update 2: Santos Kreimann, the acting assessor while Noguez is on leave, sent a message to his staff today:
“As many of you are aware, this morning Assessor John Noguez and Chief Mark McNeil were arrested and face a number of criminal charges related to the District Attorney's ongoing investigation. Our office has fully cooperated with the District Attorney's investigation and we will continue to do so as the events unfold…
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.”
Unless he resigns, Noguez will continue to draw his $193,000 salary. He would be forced to relinquish his post if he is convicted of a felony.
Update 3: In a separate court filing, prosecutors allege that Schenter's wife, Dawn Thomas, received approximately $175,000 in bribes from 2002-07. The D.A.'s office did not file charges related to that allegation, and indicates that its investigation is ongoing.
Schenter told investigators that Salari paid him “to ensure that Schenter assented to the property values defendant Salari set on properties Salari represented,” according to the filing.
The document also shows that Noguez began repaying the $180,000 “loan” from Salari in January. He repaid $3,000 in six installments of $500.
The document also states that investigators found a list of 18 Salari properties during a search of Noguez's home. The list — which is posted below, after the complaint — included detailed information about Salari's attempts to reduce the assessed values of the properties.
[Update at 3:09 p.m.]: Sounds like Noguez and Salari both pleaded not guilty. Margaret Carrero of KNX 1070 Newsradio said via Twitter that lawyers for the pair were arguing for reduced bail.