Los Angeles Largest Corruption Case Unfolds – My Front Seat To The Investigation & Felony Charges Against County Assessor John Noguez

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LA Assessor Logo

It was called the biggest political corruption case in the history of Los Angeles County.

Not only did I have a front row seat, I had the opportunity to expose all the little secrets that eventually blew the lid off this case when I worked for a small community newspaper in Cerritos.

I remember that day…nearly eight years later… and every sorted salacious detail that shaped the puzzle objects into a large board that eventually connected all the pieces.

LA County Attorney Steve Cooley stood before literally a hundred members of the media from all over the country who gathered inside a hot cramped media conference room to hear the salacious details of a criminal investigation that had just lead to the indictment and arrests of a rising national political star, Assessor John Noguez.

Cooley ran the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office for 12 years with an iron fist.  He had no fear as a prosecutor.  He had racked up literally dozens of successful indictments and convictions of some of the most powerful elected officials in the largest county in America.  

In 2009, Cooley gained coverage all over the world when, along with federal authorities, when he requested that the Swiss government arrest and extradite movie director Roman Polanski, who was traveling to the Zurich Film Festival. Polanski had been a fugitive for 31 years after originally fleeing the United States in February 1978 after pleading guilty to unlawful sex with a minor in Los Angeles. Swiss courts dismissed the extradition request in July 2010 and released Polanski. Cooley was undeterred and earned a reputation of seeking justice against those in influence who had crossed the legal line.

Cooley had eyes on higher office, losing a razor thin campaign for California Attorney General to another upstart political figure Kamala Harris, who was little known at the time outside of the San Francisco Bay area who served as the top prosecutor in the Golden Gate enclave.  Cooley lost to Harris in an election that literally took more than 30 days to settle by the counting of late provisional and absentee ballots from 58 different California counties.

Ironically, the biggest political corruption case that he would eventually prosecute in his storied public career literally took place under his feet, in a suite of offices located a few floors from his office inside the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration.

At the time, Cooley told this reporter that he had only met newly elected Assessor John Noguez on one occasion, during a reception that the two paths would cross during a social event.

“Mr. Economy, we are calling to tell you that Assessor John Noguez, is in the process of being arrested at his home in Huntington Park.  We are also arresting (co-conspirators) Ramin Salari and Mark McNeill at their homes.”

CRIMEWAVE ALLEGATIONS INSIDE ASSESSORS OFFICE

On October 17, 2012, my phone rang literally at the crack of dawn. 

It was the Media Relations Office at the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office calling. I had waited for this call for months…literally years as a matter of fact.

“Mr. Economy, we are calling to tell you that Assessor John Noguez, is in the process of being arrested at his home in Huntington Park.  We are also arresting (co-conspirators) Ramin Salari and Mark McNeill at their homes.”

My heart was beating out of my chest

“District Attorney Cooley would like to make sure that you can attend a press conference later this morning where all of the details will be announced.”

It was done. 

Justice was being served and I felt personally responsible for helping make this moment happen since my relentless dogged reporting revealed the sorted and titillating details of the case. 

Assessor John Noguez was going to jail. 

I called my publisher at the time and told him the news, and literally within minutes we were breaking the news and life at Los Cerritos Community Newspaper changed forever.

District Attorney Steve Cooley called it the most significant case of public corruption he has seen in his four decades in the district attorney’s office.

“Instead of acting in the best interest of the citizens of Los Angeles County, (Noguez) turned his back on them,” Cooley said.

The motive was simple according to Cooley.  It was plain and simple greed.

While Noguez was arrested along with his chief appraiser Mark McNeil and Arizona tax consultant Ramin Salari they were hauled off to Men’s Central Jail in Downtown Los Angeles, and media members began telling the news about the details.

The complaint alleged that Noguez accepted $185,000 in bribes from Salari between February and September 2010.  Noguez claimed that the “bribes” were loans to his campaign for Assessor and that he intended to pay them back presumably after the campaign was over.

He never paid a dime back.

Cooley and his team of prosecutors called it “bribery.”

Then came the bail details.

Bail was initially set for each man at $1.36 million…. which was the estimated amount the county lost because of their alleged misdeeds, Arraignment was delayed till Friday of that week, so Noguez, Salari and McNeill were stuck in their orange county prisoner jumpsuits. 

Arranging for bail proved to be a challenge for Noguez because Prosecutors filed a motion asking that the men be required to show the source of any funds they post for bail.  When the chips are down, not many folks wanted to be publicly associated with helping bail out the three arrested codefendants.

No one was rushing to post bail for Noguez.  At one-point, longtime political allies of his from Huntington Park held a fundraiser at the local eatery to raise money for his legal defense fund.  Only a handful of people showed up including a few contacts of mine who attended “undercover” and reported all the details to me in real time.  No stone went unturned in reporting the details of this case.

In the filing of charges, Cooley and his investigators investigated improper tax breaks.  Most of these who got the first hand, front of the line treatment were actual campaign donors to Noguez political efforts current and past.

Assessor’s office employees complained to me in droves that they were pressured to lower property taxes by Noguez himself and his allies close to him inside the sprawling operation.

Members of Defense team tried to hit back on the charges.  At the time, Defense attorney Michael J. Proctor said Cooley was engaged in a one-sided investigation aimed at “getting” Noguez. In addition, Noguez had been assured he would be able to give his side of the story before any charges were filed, the lawyer said.  That of course did not happen and does not happen in real life political corruption cases.

The Associated Press also reported that Proctor said that Noguez has a history of professionalism and cares deeply about the job and the people at the assessor’s office.  The people I interviewed repeatedly who worked with Noguez told me otherwise.

Cooley blasted that assertion saying that his office would talk to Noguez if he waived his Miranda rights.  Noguez refused.

Also, at the time, an attorney for Salari said the charges were baseless and would be vigorously defended.

Richard Hirsch, a lawyer for McNeil at the time said in media reports that, “client told us he isn’t guilty.” Hirsch said they offered to meet with the district attorney before charges were filed but “weren’t afforded that opportunity.”

McNeil is a tall lanky man with a thin build and was followed by reporters from Fox News in Los Angeles on daily walks he would take outside of his home on the Westside of Los Angeles in the Santa Monica area.  McNeil at the time looked worried and sources told me he was “a walking zombie” during the heat of the investigation.

I questioned many of the owners of the properties involved, primarily located on the west side, if they knew about the alleged complex conspiracy plot that Noguez and his minions had undertaken.  I didn’t get far in my questioning and literally had dozens of interviewees slam the phone down mid conversation.

After Noguez, Salari, and McNeil were arrested and charged, Cooley made it clear in interviews that the case was “on going” and that “additional arrests could still take place as the case developed.”

No additional arrests were ever made.

Before he was elected assessor, Noguez was a city official in suburban Huntington Park, serving as city clerk, a council member and as mayor. He resigned to run for county assessor and won the office in 2010.

McNeil, a lawyer, was president of a union representing appraisers and delivered the union’s endorsement to Noguez during his campaign, according to court documents. He was subsequently promoted to be the top lieutenant of Noguez.

Salari was a property tax agent who represents property owners seeking to obtain reductions in the assessed value of their properties. His company is based in Arizona, but most of its business is in Los Angeles County.

Ironically, one of Salari’s neighbors in Arizona, who is in the medical profession, tracked me down after following in detail my reporting at the time, would call me and tell me what Salari was doing, including walking his dogs.  To me, every detail in this case was fascinating. This case became my life, all consuming.

Several news agencies reported that Salari’s attorney, powerhouse attorney Mark Werksman, said his client never bribed anyone or obtained any illegal advantages on behalf of his clients and that most of his results were upheld on appeal. He said some reductions came during the real estate crisis in California when property values plunged.  Cooley and his team called his comments basically unfounded.

While investigating this case, I went to the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration in Norwalk and pulled a copy of the birth certificate of Noguez. 

I was stunned on what I found.

The center of this case…the man who is the lead defendant, John Noguez real name is Juan Renaldo Rodriguez. 

When I informed Cooley of this, the veteran prosecutor was stunned.  

During that historical press conference, Cooley pointed out to reporters that Noguez was really Defendant Juan Reynaldo Rodriguez, AKA: John Noguez.

It was the art of political illusion and no one even bothered to check his birth certificate.

Nine years later, this case continues, and more details are about to emerge.

The political corruption trial of my lifetime is in eyesight.

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