Hat tip to Susie for sending this in, from the latimes.com:
(story was first broke here: http://loscerritosnews.net/index253.htm)
A former Los Angeles County property appraiser who secretly granted large, unauthorized tax breaks to wealthy homeowners told officials that county Assessor John Noguez personally asked him to “look at the properties,” according to documents reviewed Friday.
The former employee, Scott Schenter, who resigned in lieu of termination, is now at the center of a criminal investigation of the assessor’s office by county prosecutors.
Schenter’s allegation is contained in a memo written by his supervisors, who interviewed him while they were investigating his unauthorized manipulation of the county’s property assessment roll. They ultimately determined that Schenter had improperly reduced assessments, and therefore annual tax bills, for 125 property owners in Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Pacific Palisades and other Westside communities.
Noguez’s office released the memo and other documents to The Times on Friday afternoon in response to a public records request.
Assessor’s office spokesman Louis Reyes said Friday evening that Noguez asked Schenter to look into the assessments for some of the properties. Noguez just wanted Schenter to “check the status,” Reyes said, not necessarily reduce their values. Noguez has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
Noguez was a high-ranking executive in the assessor’s office when he made the request, and was running for the agency’s top job. He won election as county assessor in November 2010.
Schenter could not be reached for comment Friday evening. In an affidavit he signed before his January 2011 resignation, he wrote, “I was contacted by new Assessor John Noguez to look into some of the properties. He did not tell me to reduce them.”
He did reduce many of them, however, wiping at least $54 million in assessed value from county tax rolls without seeking signatures from his supervisors, which are required for any such alterations of value.
The list of homeowners who benefited from the improper reductions is dominated by clients of Ramin Salari, a tax consultant who is also a key figure in the ongoing criminal probe, prosecutors have acknowledged.
Salari, many of his clients and several immediate family members contributed to Noguez’s campaign.
Among Salari clients on the list is Brentwood homeowner Rouhollah Esmailzadeh, whose 12,000-square-foot home dropped in assessed value from $9.2 million to $6 million in 2010, lowering his annual tax bill by an estimated $40,000.
Esmailzadeh gave $1,000 to Noguez’s campaign, county records show. In an interview last month, his son A.J. Esmailzadeh denied any wrongdoing.
After being approached by property owners, the tax agents and Noguez, Schenter said in his affidavit that he abandoned protocol, which requires homeowners to file an appeal and deal with whatever appraiser they are assigned. Instead, he personally handled the cases and ensured the homeowners got a “fairer shake,” he wrote in the affidavit.
Schenter ignored the rules requiring him to get his boss’ signature before altering the county’s computer file where values are recorded, he wrote, because “I know my supervisor … probably would not have approved them.”
Noguez, who worked for more than two decades as a county appraiser before being elected assessor, said in an interview last month that he had no idea what motivated Schenter to reduce the values.
After Schenter’s supervisors in the assessor’s Culver City office learned of his misdeeds, Noguez allowed Schenter to resign in lieu of termination. Noguez then sent letters to most of the property owners informing them an error had been made and that their tax bills would go back up.
About four months after Schenter’s departure, Noguez notified the county district attorney’s office of Schenter’s actions. But by then, prosecutors had begun their own investigation.
Salari has declined repeated requests for interviews since a prosecutor confirmed that he is a subject of the ongoing inquiry.
In the affidavit, Schenter said he did not know most of the homeowners but that he had “good professional” dealings with the tax agents who represented many of them.
The only beneficiary he knew personally, Schenter wrote, was Mark Weinstein, whose Marina del Rey condo he reduced from a value of $1.8 million to $950,000. That dropped the annual tax bill by roughly $10,000.
Weinstein and his wife contributed $3,000 to Noguez’s campaign, records show. Neither could be reached for comment Friday night.