Addressing a lingering political controversy that has threatened the credibility of one of the county’s departments, Fourth District Supervisor Don Knabe is seeking a prohibition on political contributions to the county assessor from tax agents who are involved in transactions with the assessor’s office.
“The office of the Los Angeles County Assessor is currently surrounded by controversy, in large part due to the assessor’s alleged inappropriate relationship with a tax agent. It has been reported in the press that these agents have solicited campaign donations from their clients for the assessor’s election,” the supervisor’s motion reads.
“In Los Angeles County, tax agents represent and advocate for property owners before our county assessor, the assessment appeals board and assessment hearing officers. They are paid to represent their clients and influence decisions. This process must be regulated and made transparent to the public,” the motion continues. “The county of Los Angeles has a very effective campaign finance ordinance that regulates financial contributions to political campaigns for county offices.”
The supervisor, who represents Marina del Rey, acknowledged the motion was born out of the controversy surrounding county assessor John Noguez.
“We realized that tax agents didn’t have the same reporting requirements so we wanted to put them in the same category with lobbyists,” the supervisor said after the board’s Aug. 28 meeting.
Knabe’s motion would authorize the Board of Supervisors to direct the county counsel, its executive officer and the registrar-recorder/county clerk to draft language for an ordinance that “ensures increased transparency in the property tax arena in the county of Los Angeles and prohibits campaign contributions from tax agents who have business before the assessor, assessor’s staff, assessment appeals board and assessment hearing officers.”
The supervisors appointed county Department of Beaches and Harbors Director Santos Kreimann as chief deputy assessor June 19 to supervise the county assessor’s office during Noguez’s leave of absence.
The embattled assessor stands accused of reducing tax values on over 100 properties of wealthy Westside homeowners in exchange for help in retiring debt he incurred during his 2010 campaign.
Prior to Kreimann’s appointment, there was no chief assessor.
Noguez, who was elected in 2010, announced that he was temporarily stepping down after weeks of outcries from public officials urging him to resign.
“In the interest of restoring public confidence in the professionalism, integrity and impartiality of the assessor’s office, I intend to take a leave of absence from my duties as assessor,” he wrote in a letter to the supervisors. “I do not take this decision lightly. It is my sincere hope that the leave of absence will allow the assessor’s office to adhere to its mission during this important time.”
Kreimann, who previously worked in the county treasurer’s office as well as in the tax collector’s office, was asked to take over immediately and will continue to be the director at Beaches and Harbors while he heads the assessor’s office.
There are two bills similar to Knabe’s motion in the Assembly, Assembly Bill 2183 and Assembly Bill 404. The former, sponsored by Assemblyman Cameron Smyth (R-Valencia), would require a tax agent who wishes to represent a taxpayer before the assessor, a county board of equalization or an assessment appeals board to register with a registering jurisdiction (county) prior to representing a taxpayer before that jurisdiction.
AB 404, which was amended Aug. 21, would require any county that regulates lobbying before the Board of Supervisors to adopt an ordinance and impose a reasonable necessary fee to regulate property tax agents and firms representing clients before the county assessor’s office for compensation. The bill’s author is Assemblyman Michael Gatto (D-Los Angeles).
Property tax agents are not regulated or licensed in California.
Los Angeles County Counsel John Krattli gave the supervisors an analysis of the two bills and cited AB 404 as being the least helpful to the county and to Knabe’s motion.
“This bill does not assist the board in establishing greater transparency, it negatively impacts taxpayer costs of representation and it also creates a larger workload for both the executive officer and the assessor,” Krattli asserted.
The county attorney believes the supervisors would have sufficient legal cover for the Knabe motion if AB 404 becomes law.
“Should AB 404 pass, which bans campaign contributions from tax agents who act on their clients’ behalf before the assessor, the county could defend its action because it will be complying with state law, even though constitutional concerns may exist,” Krattli explained. “Alternatively, the county could consider reasonable limits on such campaign contributions as long as the limitation advances the government’s interest in preventing quid pro quo corruption or the appearance thereof, but those limits cannot be so low as to place unreasonable limits on speech.”
Knabe rejected that approach. “Why should we wait to see what the state may or may not do?” he said. “(AB 404) could come back without any teeth or be watered down.”
The supervisors voted Aug. 28 to have the county counsel bring back a more specific ordinance with Knabe’s recommendations included.
There has been one arrest in the case involving what prosecutors at District Attorney Steve Coley’s office believe are links to Noguez’s alleged scheme to entice his subordinates to help his campaign contributors.
Scott Schenter, who worked in the Culver City office until last year as a county appraiser, was charged with 60 felony counts, including falsifying records and illegally lowering property values by $172 million. He has pleaded not guilty.
The Culver City office was raided last month and investigators removed files, computers and other items they say are related to the probe.
The ex-appraiser alleges Noguez pressured him and others to solicit campaign contributions and offered certain homeowners a break on their taxable property valuables, claims that Noguez and his attorney have denied.
Knabe requested that the proposed ordinance be brought before the board within 30 days.