Updated below. The L.A. district attorney's office has opened a public integrity investigation into Assessor John Noguez, as well as into a former appraiser with the assessor's office.
David Demerjian, the head of the D.A.'s public integrity division, confirmed the investigation into Noguez and into Scott Schenter, a former appraiser. The investigations were first reported by Randy Economy, a journalist and political consultant writing in the Los Cerritos Community News.
Investigators are said to be interested in Noguez's relationship with Ramin Salari, who runs Assessment Appeals Services, a firm which helps property owners obtain reductions in their property tax assessments.
Salari allegedly pressured several clients to make political contributions, including contributions to Noguez's campaign, attorneys who represent those clients told the L.A. Weekly.
Several of those clients subsequently received substantial reductions in their property tax assessments.
"Salari went around trying to collect money for Noguez," alleges David Youssefyeh, an attorney who represents Abraham Mossadegh, one of Salari's former clients. "He was very much like, 'You have to give money, and here's how much you have to give.'"
Youssefyeh said that Salari told his client that he would not get a reduction unless he hired Salari. According to Youssefyeh, Noguez said the same thing to Mossadegh's property manager, Pierre Toulakany.
"He said, 'Nothing's going to happen with your appeal unless you go through Salari,'" Youssefyeh says. "Then they go through Salari and boom -- immediate reduction."
Salari has since sued Mossadegh to collect his commission, which he alleges is 50% of the tax savings.
Another Salari client, Earl Hirahara, says that Salari claimed that he "knew people" who could help get an assessment reduction. Salari encouraged him to contribute to several campaigns, Hirahara says.
"I thought he was crazy," he says. "I don't know the people that are running. Why would I want to contribute?"
Salari has filed suits against numerous former clients to recoup unpaid commissions. Hirahara was one of those clients. He says he refused to pay what he considered an exorbitant fee. That suit was eventually settled out of court.
Farhad Farahmand, another former client of Salari's, was also pressured to attend a political fundraiser, according to Farahmand's attorney, Jason Saccuzzo, although he ultimately did not attend. Farahmand has filed a countersuit against Salari, alleging that he falsely claimed to have a 99% success rate in obtaining assessment reductions.
"He certainly holds himself out as being the go-to guy," Saccuzzo says. "He certainly represents himself as being able to do what others are unable to do as far as getting tax reassessments."
Salari contributed $2,000 to Noguez's 2010 campaign for assessor. Another $8,000 came to Noguez from people who share Salari's last name. Before becoming the Assessor, Noguez worked as an appraiser in the office for more than 20 years. He knew Salari in that capacity, says Louis Reyes, the assessor's spokesman.
"There's no secret (Salari) supported the assessor, as many individuals have," Reyes tells the LA Weekly. "It's all within the letter of the law."
Reyes says that Noguez has offered to cooperate with the investigation, but, to date, has not heard back from the district attorney's office.
The D.A. opened its first investigation, into former appraiser Scott Schenter, after receiving a complaint on May 2, 2011, Demerjian says. The second investigation, into Noguez, was prompted by a complaint received on Nov. 18, 2011. Demerjian declined to discuss the specifics of either inquiry.
Reyes, the Assessor's spokesman, says the first investigation was prompted by an internal audit at the assessor's office. The office turned that information over to the D.A. for investigation, he says.
Calls to Schenter, Salari and Salari's attorneys were not returned.
Update, 5:51 p.m.: Gary Townsend, a former chief deputy assessor who retired last year, stands up for Noguez.
"I think John will be cleared," Townsend tells the Weekly. "Whatever people say, I know he didn't intentionally do anything that was wrong."
Townsend says that when Noguez first came into office, there were complaints within the office about tax agents who were angling for special treatment because they know Noguez. Noguez issued an internal memo to make it clear that the department is to give "fair assessed values."
"John's one of those guys everybody likes. A lot of people act like they know him so well you should do something for them... At times his niceness may have worked against him because everyone considered him a friend," Townsend says. "I'm sure people said that because they knew John, they were given special deals. I never saw any special deals when I worked there."
Asked about Scott Schenter, Townsend says the office discovered the problem and investigated it, and referred it to the district attorney. The allegation is that Schenter wrongfully lowered the assessed values of a large number of properties. But Townsend said the mistaken assessments were caught and corrected before tax rolls were issued, so no one got an undeserved tax break.
"He shouldn't have been doing what he was doing," Townsend says. "It was wrong. Whether it was criminally wrong is not something I or anybody else knows."
Regarding the Salari clients who claim to have been pressured to make contributions, Townsend says "All these people are being sued by Salari... The people complaining have a particular ax to grind."
Update 2, 6:21 p.m.: Sheldon Sloan, Noguez's personal attorney, opines that the D.A. has opened an "inquiry," not an "investigation."
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"Anybody can make a complaint," Sloan says. "Someone has registered a complaint. The district attorney has opened a file. That's it."
Sloan declines to respond to the claim that Noguez directed a property owner to hire Salari. "I have no knowledge of that," he says.
Asked about Scott Schenter, Sloan says "That's a personnel matter. Nobody comments on that."
Louis Reyes, the assessor's spokesman, has gotten together a statement on the Schenter issue: "The matter is an ongoing personnel issue that is confidential by law. Appropriate measures are in place to ensure the integrity of the appraisal process."