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Judge won’t dismiss charges against former assessor

LOS ANGELES — A judge refused to dismiss more than a dozen counts of misappropriation of funds against former Los Angeles County assessor John Noguez and his two co-defendants April 10.

The motion was filed by defense attorney Vicki Podberesky on behalf of her client, Mark McNeil, 59, once one of Noguez’ chief appraisers, and joined by attorneys for Noguez, 52, and tax agent Ramin Salari, 54.

Podberesky sought to dismiss all charges against McNeil, who is facing one count of conspiracy to commit a crime and 14 counts of misappropriation of funds in connection with an alleged scheme to reduce property tax assessments in exchange for campaign contributions to Noguez.

Noguez, a former Huntington Park city councilman, and Salari are also named in those 15 counts, in addition to facing multiple charges of bribery, embezzlement and grand theft. Noguez is also charged with three counts of perjury, and Salari is the sole defendant in a separate tax evasion case.

Podberesky argued that the property assessments set by the county’s Assessment Appeals Board were as binding and final as a court ruling and thus the District Attorney’s Office had no basis to relitigate the valuations.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George Lomeli said he disagreed with the defense argument that “this court is without jurisdiction to hear any evidence [about these assessments].”

He said it would be “unreasonable” to prohibit criminal prosecution if the appeals board relied on misrepresentations by McNeil and Salari, something the judge expects to come out during the preliminary hearing.

“What the evidence [will show] remains to be seen,” Lomeli said.

The judge also denied Podberesky’s claim that the only recourse for challenging the assessments would be to file a civil suit.

“It just does not make sense to this court,” Lomeli said, providing a point-by-point rebuttal to the case law cited by the defense.

After the judge made his ruling, the preliminary hearing began, with Deputy District Attorney Craig Hum outlining the prosecution’s case.

Hum alleged that Noguez made illegal adjustments to property tax assessments dating back to “at least the late 1990s,” when Noguez was assigned to the downtown business district.

Roughly $250,000 in bribes was paid from Salari to appraiser Scott Schenter over a 10-year period, and Salari paid another $180,000 in bribes to Noguez, Hum alleged.

In exchange, Salari got “whatever values he wanted,” Hum said.

In some cases, Noguez unilaterally dropped values. In others, the appeals process was subverted to generate new assessments, Hum alleged.

Sometimes the county tax collector’s database was altered so that no taxes would be billed, even though the property value remained unchanged in the assessor’s records, according to the prosecutor. Other properties were simply removed from the tax rolls, Hum alleged.

Typically, Salari was paid 50 percent of whatever reductions he garnered for his clients, the prosecutor told the court.

The overall result of the scheme was “huge tax losses for the county and huge fees for defendant Salari,” Hum alleged.

Hum said he hadn’t made a final decision whether to call Schenter, who is charged separately, as a witness at the preliminary hearing, but that he was leaning against it.

The preliminary hearing — designed to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed to trial — is expected to run for four to six weeks.