Posted by: Scott Groves | February 25, 2012

Corruption of an LA County Assessor

Like an episode from The Sopranos, the story unfolding in the County of Los Angeles may soon bring to light one of the many reasons reason why our county has a huge shortfall in tax revenue.  It turns out that through unethical political favors and quasi illegal tax re-assessments, some of the largest property owners in Los Angeles might not be paying their fair show.

The L.A. Times is reporting that a relationship between long time county employee and recently elected L.A. County Assessor John Noguez, and property tax “consultant” Raman Salari, may be inappropriate at best and completely illegal at worst.

Criminal investigations are under way and you can read the entire story here and here.

In a nutshell, it appears that Mr. Salari, a Ferrari-driving, fast-talking, walking stereo-type of a salesman has an uncanny ability to get L.A County property tax-bills dramatically lowered.  For his services, he requires clients to pay him a fee of half the savings and donate to the political candidate of his choice.  By publicly proclaiming (and in some instances advertising) his close “relationships” with county employees inside the L.A County Assessors office, Salari has reportedly made millions of dollars by reducing the tax bill’s for owners of strip-malls, shopping centers and apartment buildings.

With the alleged assistance of L.A County Assessor Noguez, a close friend, Salari has apparently helped get property tax bills cut in half for his clients.  By petitioning the County, with some apparent inside support from Noguez, Salari has successfully gotten tax assessments reduced regardless of the recommendations of certified county appraisers.

In a slow economy, and with property values down about 30% in L.A. County since the height of the market in 2007, it seems normal that commercial properties should be able to lower their assessed tax liability.

However, the relationship between Salari and Noguez (based on reporting by the L.A. Times) appears to show that these property-tax cuts are more about exchanging special favors in return for campaign donations.

Noguez, rumored to be a front-runner to run for Mayor of Los Angeles after Antonio Villaragosa’s term ends in 2014, appears to be exchanging preferred property tax assessments for future campaign contributions.

Supporting these claims of impropriety are statements recently made by Dave Zoraster.

Zoraster, a former county employee and businessman began his property-appraisal career at the Los Angeles County assessor’s office in the 1970s.  For 33 years he worked with CB Richard Ellis – one of the largest commercial real-estate firms in the country.  After rising to vice president at Ellis, Zoraster was asked by Noguez to come back to the County assessor’s office and help “clean-up” the department.  However, Zoraster resigned 3 months ago in protest of being removed from two cases in which he opposed massive tax breaks.  Not coincidentally, feels Zoraster, these two cases were for applications filed by a businessman who financially supported Noguez’s 2010 campaign for the office.

The paper-trail may not yet be definitive.  Noguez may be able to keep this story buried and keep his job as L.A. County assessor.  One day, he may even be the Mayor of Los Angeles.  However, for the outside observer like myself, who also has a disgruntled friend currently working inside the L.A. County Assessor’s Office, it seem pretty obvious that something unethical and possibly illegal has been occurring over the last two years between Noguez and Salari.


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