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Taxation Cheating Exposed
by Steve PropesThe recent decision by L.A. County Assessor John Noguez to voluntarily step down from his office at full pay ($192,000 yearly) because of alleged financial shenanigans was the most recent development of a major news story that began with a five-person community newspaper.
The story was broken by Los Cerritos Community News reporter Randy Economy, 52, who was born in Hawthorne, moved to Cerritos when “it was just changed from Dairy Valley; there were 4,000 people and a billion flies.”
Flies excluded, “I’ve been around politics for all my life,” Economy recalled. “My mom was a professional fundraiser, worked for Jimmy Carter and Tom Bradley. I started my journalism career for the old Norwalk Herald American when I was 20.
“I’ve been involved in campaigns all of my life. I had been asked by a number of people to lend a hand to John Wong, who was running for county assessor. John Wong had $30,000 in campaign funds, while Noguez was going around Bell picking up checks. He had $1.5 million.”
In the ensuing election, “Noguez wiped everybody out. As former mayor of Huntington Park, he was politically connected, he had contacts in the assessor’s office; everything’s about politics.”
Enter Ramin Salari of the Nevada-based Assessment Appeals, LLC. “When [Noguez] got elected, Ramin Salari was with him every step of the way,” said Economy. “Noguez was a middle manager in the assessor’s office when he first met Salari in Huntington Park. He was a political advocate and property tax agent and makes $25,000 an hour thanks to Noguez.”
“We got phone calls that Salari gave contributions to Noguez; Salari was the middleman, who represented 6,000 clients who hired his services to get lower assessments. When they appeared at the appeals board, Salari came in, it’s done. The county wrote a check for the taxpayer, Salari would pick it up, give it to the taxpayer who would write the check for Salari’s fees.”
“In December 2011, we started to get calls that Noguez is under investigation. I called the DA’s office, which confirmed the investigation, but we couldn’t get details. We then made a public information act request about Noguez’s emails.”
In the wake of the LA Times extensive coverage of the Bell scandal, Economy and publisher Brian Hews contacted the Times. “We sent them documentation to let them know what’s going on. They just sat on it. After hundreds of hours and 100 interviews, it’s our story now.” Those interviews didn’t all come easy. Suffering a “massive stroke in 2001, I’m legally blind, which makes it hard to be mobile,” said Economy, who often conducts media interviews wearing an eye patch.
“My publisher and I thought there was a paper trail, but we couldn’t get a return phone call from the controller or from executive offices. The county legal offices told us there was too much to supply. Finally, the county clerk’s office relented. We started getting box loads of documents every few days.
As is customary when there were many documents, in this case, over one thousand emails, “We were billed for the documents they supplied.
“The emails were the key to the story, showed everybody in black and white the severity of the relationship between Noguez and Rami Salari. We published all the emails between the two.” As Economy later phrased it, it was simply “following the money.”
“When the average citizen needs a house reassessed,” it’s usually by a nominal amount, said Economy, who found out Salari represented high-ticket property owners for a lowered assessment before the board. It was generally granted with Salari’s fee fifty percent of the lessened amount of taxes. “Most appeals to the board are successful, but nominal. Not 40 percent as with Salari.”
As to the impact of the story, Economy noted, “when you’re a newspaper reporter, you do it for the story. I’ve been threatened by notes, phone calls, letters. Basically, they tell me, ‘watch your back.’ The most outrageous threats were from his consultants that said ‘you’d be wise if you dropped this investigation.’ In downtown L.A., lobbyists do what they can to make the story go away.”
Economy was never able to reach Noguez for comment. “I don’t know how many times we tried. His office told us ‘you’re not a legit newspaper, we‘re not going to talk with you.” His only response was about a property tax consultant from Pasadena who did an infomercial in Noguez’s office.
“He’s been able to figure out how he and his friends can profit from his access.”
And the moral of the story? “People need to be voter beware, get educated about who you vote for. The board of supervisors were among Noguez’s biggest supporters; look who benefited from his actions.”
“Hard work can pay off,” said Economy. “You can achieve. Even if the size of your paper isn’t big, it doesn’t matter, you can get your story.”