For more than a decade, tax consultant Ramin Salari fought charges that he had bribed former Los Angeles County assessor John Noguez in a pay-for-play conspiracy.
Then, last week, Salari reversed course, agreeing to a deal with prosecutors that called for him to plead guilty to a single charge and pay more than $9 million in penalties in exchange for a sentence that spared him from time in prison.
Under the terms of the deal, 11 counts of conspiracy, bribery and grand theft were to be whittled down to a conviction for grand theft and Salari would get 2 years’ felony probation and 45 days’ community service, according to court records.
But things did not go according to plan.
In weighing whether to approve the deal, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Stephen A. Marcus refused, then relented, then refused again — throwing the long-running case against Salari, Noguez and others into chaos.
At a court hearing on Jan. 6, Marcus initially balked at the terms of the deal. He reconsidered when Salari’s lawyer, Stephen G. Larson, a former federal judge, informed him that if the judge approved the plea agreement, then the tax consultant would divulge to prosecutors how the alleged scheme with Noguez worked, according to court records.
With witnesses’ memories fading, the L.A. County district attorney’s office was eager to get the deal done as well. A prosecutor joined Larson in urging the judge to accept the deal, telling him Salari’s cooperation would “make the case” against Noguez and other former public employees charged in the case, the records show.
Noguez and one of his former aides are accused of taking bribes from Salari to illegally lower the value of properties owned by his clients in order to reduce their tax bills.
After a recess, the judge declared he would accept the plea deal if Salari promptly told prosecutors what he knew and then returned to his courtroom in the afternoon to plead guilty to the theft charge, court records show.
Salari then spent two hours with prosecutors coming clean, providing “a detailed account of his role in the charged crimes, incriminating himself and others in the process,” according to court records filed by his lawyer. He revealed how he allegedly had funneled at least $180,000 in payoffs to the county assessor’s staff 13 years ago, enlightening prosecutors to details of which prosecutors had been unaware, the records show.
But then when they returned to Marcus’ courtroom to finalize the plea deal, the judge announced that he had changed his mind. “I believe it’s far too lenient,” Marcus said. There “is simply no way that I could live with a no custody time deal on the extent of this alleged fraud and white-collar crimes.”
Both Salari’s lawyer and the prosecutor asked the judge to reconsider and accept the plea, but he declined, according to a motion by the defense to remove the judge from the case.
“Someone has to go to jail and that means Mr. Salari,” Marcus replied, according to the motion.
With Salari having incriminated himself and again facing the full array of charges, the case spiraled into legal turmoil. Salari’s lawyers on Wednesday asked a state appeals court to order the court to accept the plea, arguing he would not have divulged his guilt to prosecutors without the promise of the plea deal.
The “consequences cannot be reversed,” Larson wrote in the appeal filing, adding that a judge can only withdraw approval of a plea deal if a defendant can be made whole again.
“I understand why the defense and prosecutors are frustrated,” said Laurie Levenson, a Loyola law professor. She questioned: “Did the judge agree to [the deal] or tentatively agree to it?”
Levenson, a former federal prosecutor, said the judge upon reconsideration may have determined the plea agreement was too much of a sweetheart deal for a white-collar defendant. “It raised important questions about who has the discretion when it comes to a plea,” she said.
Marcus’ about face could affect other cases, Levenson said. I can see defendants with pending plea agreements being wary given what happened in this case,” she said.
Salari’s legal team also filed a motion to disqualify Marcus from the case. That request was referred to another judge and is scheduled to be taken up next month.
The strange turn of events is the latest in the public corruption case that is now in its second decade.
Noguez was first arrested in 2012 and accused of accepting a $185,000 bribe, but the case was marked by delays, owing in part to the 45,000 pages of evidence collected by investigators. In May 2020, the 2nd District Court of Appeals ordered all the charges against Noguez, his former top assistant, Mark McNeil, and Salari dismissed on technical grounds stemming from a missed deadline.
In 2020, prosecutors refiled charges. Noguez and McNeil have pleaded not guilty.
Larson has previously said the case was flawed because it relied “on a highly unreliable witness” and because the lower tax assessments sought by Salari were agreed upon and validated by the county’s assessment appeals board, a quasi-judicial body.
Noguez, a longtime Huntington Park City Council member who was elected in 2010 to serve as L.A. County’s tax assessor, was first led out of his home in handcuffs in 2012. Then-Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley described it as one of the most significant public corruption cases in county government in decades.
He remained on paid leave from the assessor’s office for two years, until his term in office expired. In December 2014, he was replaced by the current assessor, Jeff Prang, a former West Hollywood City Council member.
Prosecutors allege that McNeil’s role was to help obtain the assessment reductions for Salari’s clients. Among the properties that received reductions: the site of the shuttered Old Spaghetti Factory in Hollywood, a grocery store in Torrance and a seven-bedroom mansion in Bel-Air, according to court documents. Owners of parcels in Santa Monica, Hermosa Beach and Beverly Hills also allegedly benefited from the breaks.