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LA County assessor arrested in corruption case

LINDA DEUTSCH, AP Special Correspondent
Thursday, 18 Oct 2012 | 8:54 AM ET

LOS ANGELES -- Los Angeles County assessor John Noguez, a top aide and a campaign contributor were arrested Wednesday as part of an investigation into influence peddling and slashing of property taxes for political allies.

District Attorney Steve Cooley called it the most significant case of public corruption he has seen in his four decades in the district attorney's office.

"Instead of acting in the best interest of the citizens of Los Angeles County, he turned his back on them," Cooley said.

Asked about a motive, Cooley said greed.

Noguez was arrested along with his chief appraiser Mark McNeil and Arizona tax consultant Ramin Salari after being accused of conspiring to slash property values and save millions of dollars in property taxes for clients of Salari, a campaign contributor to Noguez.

The complaint alleged that Noguez accepted $185,000 in bribes from Salari between February and September, 2010.

Bail was initially set for each man at $1.36 million _ the estimated amount the county lost because of their alleged misdeeds. Arraignment and a bail hearing for the men were delayed until Friday.

Prosecutors filed a motion asking that the men be required to show the source of any funds they post for bail.

The charges came after investigators looked into improper tax breaks granted to more than 100 wealthy property owners since the election of Noguez.

Assessor's office employees complained they were pressured to lower property taxes for clients of prominent Noguez campaign contributors, authorities said.

Defense attorney Michael J. Proctor said Cooley was engaged in a one-sided investigation aimed at "getting" Noguez. In addition, Noguez had been assured he would be able to give his side of the story before any charges were filed, the lawyer said.

Proctor added that Noguez has a history of professionalism and cares deeply about the job and the people at the assessor's office.

Cooley said his office would talk to Noguez if he waived his Miranda rights.

An attorney for Salari said the charges were baseless and would be vigorously defended. It was unclear if McNeil had obtained a lawyer.

Richard Hirsch, a lawyer for McNeil, said, "Our client told us he isn't guilty." Hirsch said they offered to meet with the district attorney before charges were filed but "weren't afforded that opportunity."

At a news conference, Cooley declined to comment on whether owners of the properties, primarily located on the west side of Los Angeles, knew about the conspiracy. However, he said the investigation was ongoing and there could be further arrests.

Noguez was charged with 44 counts of conspiracy, bribery and corruption. The others were charged with conspiracy and misappropriation of public funds. All were arrested at their homes.

Bail was set for each man at $1.36 million -- the estimated amount that the county lost because of their misdeeds.

Before he was elected assessor, Noguez was a city official in suburban Huntington Park, serving as city clerk, a council member and as mayor. He resigned to run for county assessor and won the office in 2010.

McNeil, a lawyer, was president of a union representing appraisers and delivered the union's endorsement to Noguez during his campaign, according to court documents. He was subsequently promoted to be the top lieutenant of Noguez.

Salari is a property tax agent who represents property owners seeking to obtain reductions in the assessed value of their properties. His company is based in Arizona, but most of its business is in Los Angeles County, the documents said.

Salari's attorney, Mark Werksman, said his client never bribed anyone or obtained any illegal advantages on behalf of his clients. Most of his results were upheld on appeal, Werkman said.

He said some reductions came during the real estate crisis in California when property values plunged.

Prosecutors filed a motion to freeze all assets owned by the defendants pending trial.

Cooley said the investigation also determined that the real name of Noguez is Juan Renaldo Rodriguez.

Another member of the assessor's staff, Scott Schenter, has pleaded not guilty in a separate complaint. He was accused of slashing values on multi-million-dollar homes, condos and businesses in Beverly Hills, Brentwood and Pacific Palisades.

He was also accused of obtaining campaign contributions for Noguez from owners of those properties.

If convicted, Noguez could face up to 30 years, four months in state prison; Salari could face up to 29 years, four months; and McNeil could face up to 20 years, eight months.