Assessor Probe: D.A. Investigators Search Homes of John Noguez and Ramin Salari
|Assessor John Noguez|
Investigators from the L.A. County district attorney's office served search warrants at 12 locations this morning as part of an investigation of alleged corruption at the county assessor's office.
The D.A. is investigating allegations of bribery and campaign money laundering. Among the locations searched were the Huntington Park home of Assessor John Noguez, his downtown office, and the offices of the Assessment Appeals Board.
The D.A.'s investigators also served search warrants in Phoenix at the home and office of tax agent Ramin Salari, who has come under scrutiny for receiving dozens of improper tax reductions in late 2010.
Last week, the L.A. Weekly reported that Scott Schenter, a former appraiser, claimed to have cut roll values in hopes of encouraging beneficiaries to donate to Noguez's campaign. He alleged that Noguez directed him to take care of a couple of tax agents, and that he went along in hopes of getting a promotion.
Noguez is with his family in Mexico, mourning the death of his father. His attorney, Sheldon Sloan, said that D.A. investigators are "doing their job," but he was confident they would find no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
"There's nothing there to worry about," Sloan said. "He hasn't done anything wrong. It's a couple people who are disgruntled former employees feeding a lot of bad information to the D.A.'s office."
Sloan argued that Noguez would not keep any relevant records at his house, and that even if he did, he would have gotten rid of them long ago.
"If there were anything incriminating, it wouldn't be there," Sloan said. "There never was, but wouldn't it be pretty silly (to leave anything around) considering all that's been in the newspapers?"
The D.A.'s office is searching two satellite offices: the Assessor's West District location in Culver City and the East District office in South El Monte. Scott Schenter worked in the West District.
The D.A.'s office is investigating Schenter as well as Noguez and Salari. But Schenter's address was not among those searched this morning.
Investigators do not plan to make any arrests today, said Dave Demerjian, head of the public integrity unit.
The searches began at 7 a.m. The searches also included requests for business records from two Internet sites: AOL and GoDaddy.
Update: Supervisor Mike Antonovich, no friend of John Noguez, becomes the first elected official to openly criticize the assessor regarding this scandal. In a statement, Antonovich calls on the D.A.'s office "to act expeditiously to expose and extinguish any undue influence or unethical dealings -- to restore the public's trust in the office as swiftly as possible."
Update 2: Ramin Salari's attorney, Mark Werksman, alleges that this morning's raids are "payback."
"The assessor's office is looking to scapegoat Ramin Salari for its dysfunctional practices," Werksman said. "The assessor's office is very hostile to taxpayers' interests, and he's a champion for the taxpayers. He's very successful in obtaining well deserved reductions in property taxes, and they're trying to destroy him."
Werksman said that Salari called him this morning from Arizona to report that D.A. investigators, assisted by local police, had raided his home and office.
"This is very disruptive to his business, but he's gonna carry on," Werksman said. "It's a challenge to keep your business operations intact when you're being raided and questioned and accused."
Werksman said that the D.A.'s office has not asked to interview Salari. He declined to say whether Salari would agree to such an interview. He denied that his client has been involved in money laundering or bribery.
"They made this up whole cloth," he said. "It's become a witch hunt. It's all about Ramin Salari. He's Public Enemy #1."
Louis Reyes, the assessor's spokesman, said that the office is "fully cooperating with the investigation."
"The assessor and our employees are committed to the performance of our public responsibilities with dedication and the highest level of integrity," Reyes said.
Update 3: Noguez is making arrangements to return from Mexico "as soon as possible," Reyes said.
Update 4, Thursday afternoon: D.A. investigators searched the work spaces of Mark McNeil and Andrew Stephens, according to Dave Demerjian, head of the Public Integrity Division. McNeil and Stephens both figured in last week's L.A. Weekly cover story about the assessor's office.
Noguez promoted McNeil and Stephens to executive management jobs after he was elected in 2010. McNeil had contributed $5,500 to Noguez's city and county campaigns; Stephens had given $7,000.
In a recent management shake-up, Stephens was demoted and transferred to the East District office in South El Monte, where he is chief appraiser. McNeil was also transferred, and made chief appraiser of the West District office in Culver City.
Demerjian declined to say whether either Stephens or McNeil is a target of the investigation.
Investigators hauled away computers and documents from several locations on Wednesday.
First posted at 11:08 a.m. on Wednesday.