What was once considered a sleepy county department is looking like a cesspool of corruption, with some of the most blatant pay-to-play activity to hit L.A. in years (which is saying a lot). How blatant? Well, the LAT had been zeroing in on County Assessor John Noguez and his relationship with a tax agent named Ramin Salari - a relationship that supposedly led to numerous reductions in the assessments of Salari clients. But questions go well beyond those two guys, as the Weekly's Gene Maddaus reports. Some snippets - if you have the stomach for it:
John Noguez represents the decades-long progression away from "defending the roll" and toward a more "taxpayer-friendly" approach. It sounds nice, but in practice it has meant befriending powerful brokers and their wealthy clients, all of whom want tax breaks in return for their friendship. The key to understanding property taxes is that appraisals are not carved in stone. As professionals like to say, it is the only form of tax based on an opinion. Those opinions can be influenced -- often by consultants known as "tax agents." Their job is to persuade appraisers to lower their property valuations. If they succeed, they get a cut of the savings. If tax agents can't convince the appraisers, they can go to the Assessment Appeals Board. The board's job is to listen to both sides and make a ruling. But caseloads are heavy and, in reality, assessor's representatives often hash out bargains with tax agents in the cafeteria across the hall, outside the public eye. Campaigns offer another lever of influence. Tax agents commonly contribute to assessor's races and encourage clients to donate as well.
Appraisers began complaining that agents were trying to trade on Noguez's friendship. Ultimately, the appraisers' union intervened, writing to Noguez to share concern that such influence "jeopardizes the impartiality and integrity of the office." At the root was a fundamental disagreement over the role of the assessor's office. On one side were young-gun assessor's representatives, such as Andrew Stephens and Mark McNeil, both promoted to top management roles by Noguez. They had imbibed the "taxpayer-friendly" approach that says appraisers are not supposed to "defend" a particular value. Instead, they are supposed to work with property owners or their agents to arrive at the fair market value, whatever that may be. On the other side were "defenders of the roll," who treat tax agents more like adversaries.
David Zoraster, who came over from CB Richard Ellis, turned out to be in the latter camp. He worked at the assessor's office 30 years ago and hadn't had a chance to learn the new approach. That put him on a collision course with Ramin Salari. The confrontation came over two apartment complexes in Hermosa Beach, owned by a publicly traded real estate firm. In securities filings, the firm put the value of the buildings at $63 million and $55 million, respectively. Salari wanted to reduce both to $35 million. Zoraster thought that was way too low, and set about finding comparables that would support a higher value. On Nov. 30, 2011, Zoraster sent Salari an email informing him that he would be personally handling the case before the appeals board. The next day, Salari forwarded Zoraster's message to Noguez; his chief of staff, Chris Carlos; and Eric Haagenson, a top deputy. "This was not my understanding," Salari wrote. "Please advise." The day after that, Carlos removed Zoraster from the case.
*Worth noting that the Los Cerritos Community News Group came out with the first story on the DA's investigation into Noguez.