An aide to Assessor John Noguez wrote a memo last year in which he sharply criticized two colleagues for opposing Ramin Salari, the tax agent at the heart of an ongoing D.A. probe of the Assessor's Office.
In the memo, Mark McNeil, a longtime ally of Noguez's and the chief of his office's Major Property Section, recommended that a colleague be demoted for going against Salari, whom McNeil described as “a known donor and political supporter” of Noguez's.
The memo, obtained by the Weekly, appears to support the contention that contributors to Noguez's campaign, including Salari, have been given special considerations within the office.
In an interview last week, Noguez said the memo is now the subject of a personnel investigation.
“It raises a red flag with me, and that's why it's being investigated,” Noguez said. The assessor affirmed that no preferential treatment should be allowed, “no matter what contribution they may have given.”
McNeil, who contributed $1,000 to Noguez's campaign, has since been reassigned to head the Assessor's West District office in Culver City. Noguez said the reassignment is not related to the investigation.
Two of McNeil's supervisors have also been recently demoted. Andrew Stephens, McNeil's direct supervisor, has been removed as director of major appraisals and assigned to head the East District office in South El Monte. Stephens' supervisor, Eric Haagenson, was demoted from assistant assessor to head of major appraisals. (Update below.)
Noguez said he is attempting to realign the management structure of the office. He insisted the demotions are unrelated to the personnel investigation.
“I'm still looking for the perfect org chart,” Noguez said. “I'm hoping this is it.”
Reached by phone, McNeil declined to comment, and referred questions to the Assessor's press deputy.
The McNeil memo addressed a contentious tax case involving two apartment complexes in Hermosa Beach. The buildings belong to Equity Residential, a large publicly traded real estate firm. In securities filings, Equity Residential claims the two properties are worth $63 million and $55 million, respectively.
The tax agent, Ramin Salari, was hired by Equity. He sought to lower the assessed values of both complexes to about $35 million.
David Zoraster, a special assistant to Noguez, got involved in the case last fall, building evidence to support higher values for the Assessor's Office.
On Nov. 30, Zoraster informed Salari by e-mail that he would be handling the two cases at the Assessment Appeals Board. Soon after, Salari forwarded that email to Noguez, Haagenson and Chris Carlos, the Assessor's chief of staff. The tax agent appeared concerned about Zoraster's participation.
“This was not my understanding,” Salari wrote. “Please advise.”
The following day, Carlos removed Zoraster from the case. The Assessor's Office has said that Zoraster was removed because a special assistant should not be involved in presenting cases before the board. Zoraster resigned from the office in protest the next week.
Despite his resignation, Zoraster showed up to the appeals hearing on Tuesday, Dec. 6. In a heated conversation with McNeil, which McNeil later wrote up in the memo to his supervisors, Zoraster alleged that Salari had undue influence over Noguez.
“I don't know if Noguez is on a suicide mission or what,” Zoraster told McNeil. “But the appraisers have had it. They know [Salari] will always get his way, and no one will ask him any questions.”
McNeil wrote that he disputed that to Zoraster, and argued that Assessor's staff routinely oppose Salari when warranted. In the memo, he accused Zoraster and another supervisor, Sharon Moller, of engaging in “retaliation” against Salari.
“This poor judgment was directed at a known friend and supporter of the Department,” McNeil wrote. “It came across as distinctly retaliatory and even childishly so… I get the distinct impression Dave and Sharon are very comfortable with coordinating in behavior among the Districts that is designed to undermine the Department head. They have done it here by subjecting a known donor and political supporter to what seems to be a biased appraisal.”
McNeil concluded the memo by recommending that Moller be demoted for “poor appraisal and management judgment, waste of resources, and her lack of personal professionalism.” McNeil also criticized Moller's clothing, noting that she wore “sweater and a windbreaker” to the appeals hearing.
Moller, who could not be reached for comment, has also been reassigned recently, from district appraisals to roll services.
The tax cases have still not been resolved. In a hearing Feb. 29, Salari attacked Zoraster's evidence, and appeared to make headway with the Assessment Appeals Board. Zoraster has been subpoenaed to appear at the next hearing, on May 2.
Mark Werksman, Salari's attorney, said that Salari has never tried to use his close friendship with Noguez to get a lower assessment for his clients.
“This is a guy who doesn't seek or sell favors,” Werksman said. “He has never tried to exploit or capitalize on his relationship with Mr. Noguez.”
In last week's interview with the Weekly, Noguez said he has recently had a “falling out” with Salari, because Salari was “maybe dropping my name too much.”
“If he was dropping my name, or anyone was dropping my name, that should not be tolerated,” Noguez said. “If they did, maybe they owe an apology to the office.”
Update: After this story was posted, the Weekly learned that Eric Haagenson elected to retire last Friday. Sharon Moller has been reassigned, again, to take over Haagenson's job.