As scandal continues to engulf L.A. County Assessor John Noguez, his office has begun a quiet campaign to reassure the Board of Supervisors that the situation is not as bad as it appears.
The head of the effort is West Hollywood Mayor Jeffrey Prang, whom Noguez hired in March as a special assistant. In a series of e-mails to the chief deputies of each supervisor two weeks ago, Prang took aim at an L.A. Weekly cover story on the assessor scandal.
The story was the first to give the account of Scott Schenter, a former appraiser who alleges that Noguez encouraged him to slash roll values in hopes that the beneficiaries would donate to Noguez's campaign.
In his e-mails to the supervisors responding to the story, Prang claims that the assessor's office has an affidavit from Schenter that exonerates Noguez. In fact, the affidavit (which is posted below) implicates him in Schenter's activity.
Schenter resigned in late January 2011, in lieu of being fired. He had been caught improperly reducing values on more than 150 parcels. When asked why he did it, he said that Noguez had asked him to “look into the values.” (He then said that Noguez had not told him to reduce the values.)
Schenter repeated the same statement in a Jan. 19 affidavit: “I was contacted by the new Assessor, John Noguez, to look into some of the listed properties. He did not tell me to reduce them. I've known John for over 20 years and we have a good friendship.”
The affidavit identifies Noguez as the instigator of Schenter's activity. If true, it is damaging to Noguez. Yet in his e-mails to the Board of Supervisors — which the Weekly obtained under the Public Records Act — Prang characterized it as a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card.
He wrote: “Schenter signed an affidavit upon his departure in January 2010 (sic) stating that the Assessor was not aware or anyway involved in his 'rogue' decision to unilaterally lower property values.”
This is all that Prang offers by way of rebuttal to the L.A. Weekly story, and it is wrong. The affidavit states that Noguez was indeed “involved.” It says that Noguez identified properties for Schenter to “look into.” Schenter reduced them. If Noguez did not explicitly tell Schenter to reduce the values, then he could have reasonably expected him to do anything else. Schenter could not very well increase the values, because increases are capped at a fixed percent.
What makes this defense even stranger is that Noguez maintains that Schenter lied in the affidavit. In an interview with the Weekly in March, Noguez contradicted Schenter, and said he had not referred any properties to him.
So if Noguez believes Schenter is lying in the affidavit, then how can the same affidavit be taken as ironclad proof of Noguez's innocence?
In the same e-mails, Prang offered to answer any of the supervisors' questions, and advised that “there will be a few more stories before the issue settles.”
The supervisors do not have direct authority over the assessor, who is an independently elected official. But the supervisors do control the assessor's budget, which means it's important to maintain cordial relations. So far, only Supervisor Michael Antonovich has publicly criticized
Noguez in relation to the scandal, calling on the D.A. to “restore the
public's trust in the office as swiftly as possible.”
In his outreach campaign to the supervisors, Prang seems to be taking cues from Gary Townsend, the former chief deputy assessor. In one e-mail, Prang tells a senior deputy to Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas that Townsend suggested they get in touch. Townsend retired in November, and is now working for the lobbying firm of Harvey Englander.
After the L.A. Times followed up on the Weekly story, Prang drafted a response for Noguez, which the Weekly also obtained under the Public Records Act:
“I am not going to respond to unknown sources, known liars, or people who keep changing their stories. I have committed to meeting and fully cooperating with the District Attorney or any other law enforcement agencies investigating these false charges and accusations.”
That response was never issued. The D.A. raided Noguez's house two days later.