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By Randy Economy and Brian Hews
In an exclusive interview with Los Cerritos Community Newspaper, Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley say that the arrest last week of Assessor John Noguez and two others on bribery and money laundering charges are “just the beginning” in what is expected to be an several other additional arrests.
Cooley spoke to LCCN from this office in Downtown Los Angeles last Friday just 48 hours after Noguez, Encino property tax agent Ramin Salari and Assessor Major Property Appraiser Mark McNeil were arrested on dozens of felony counts.
“This guy is going down,” Cooley said about Noguez. “We have so much evidence, it is overwhelming the case we have on him.”
“Well, he got arraigned yesterday (Thursday), and he (Noguez) didn’t look too happy. This is such an out of body experience for him,” Cooley said.
“There was a sense very early on (in the investigation) that there was some substance to the allegations within the Assessor’s Department,” Cooley told LCCN.
“When we did the search warrants, many months ago, there was realization that we were going to get the goods on this guy, it was just a matter of time, and pulling it all together, finding the parcels involved,” Cooley said with a stern look on his face.
“The key was finding promissory notes that Noguez had signed back to Salari, and then going in with the search warrants and finding the actual checks written to Noguez by Salari and then finding a list of properties that were Salari’s clients, we figured that one out pretty early, and we were able to build our case around witnesses,” Cooley said.
Cooley also confirmed to LCCN that the massive investigation is still “going strong.”
“The next phase of the case will be focused on political money laundering, by individuals, and that is a different form of political corruption,” Cooley said.
“This next phase of the investigation will be about bribes and misappropriation of public funds by lowering assessments of property and then perjury charges,” Cooley said.
“There are additional sanctions for being public officials when it comes to dealing with misappropriating public funds and that they must vacate their office and that they may never hold elected office again,” Cooley said.
The case against Noguez and the Assessor’s office began in earnest in the late spring of this year, Cooley said. He said that he and members of this prosecutorial staff had monitored media reports from Los Cerritos Community Newspaper as well as other publications.
“There were two assigned trial lawyers, supervised by Dave Demerjian, Head Deputy of Public Integrity, and two entire squads of investigators, a lot of law clerks, a lot of volunteer law clerks who worked around the clock,” Cooley said.
He also said the amount of evidence against Noguez, additional Assessor staff members, as well as other political operatives is “overwhelming.”
“There were millions of pages of documents, computer emails, and actual computers,” Cooley said. He also talked about a program his office created that analyzed documents through a special “keyword” search component.
“You can’t read a million documents, so we created a program that does keywords on people and subjects. We seized a lot of computers, scanned all of their hard drives, and some of them were doing this on County of Los Angeles computers,” Cooley said.
Cooley said several “political operatives” also were involved in getting properties reduced for clients who retained their services. “In additional to personal lap tops, tablets, cell phones, and other messaging devices, we have the trail of evidence we need for our case.”
“We have a great team of prosecuting attorney’s and investigators working on this case and it is still ongoing, there is a lot more to come.”
Cooley said that his prosecutors are not going to “condemn” someone “just because their name appeared on a contribution list” for Noguez.
“What is interesting is that there are entire groups of people with the same last name who live in the same location who all gave contributions, and that’s money laundering, and that may have been the case in some of these situations,” Cooley exclaimed.
“So, we got four (Noguez, McNeil, Salari) and (Property Appraiser Scott) Schenter.
LCCN asked if Schenter turned State’s evidence. “Schenter has been talking to the press, he is no angel, but I don’t want to go into the particulars of the case (against him),” Cooley said.
One reporter during the press conference questioned Cooley about the amount of bail against Noguez, Salari and McNeil. “The bail amount is not high; it starts by the amount of loss that we allege was stolen, so that amount has to be the bail.”
Cooley confirmed that the amount of the assessed values that were lost is indeed “around a billion dollars.” “The 13 properties alleged are not all the properties, there could be thousands of them (involved), but we picked 13 that were egregious. We will tie it to money laundering.”
So as he begins to wind down his final days as District Attorney, LCCN asked him the pointed question. What’s it like to be Steve Cooley these days and what does he have planned for the future?
“I want to be flexible, spend more time with my grandkids. I have three grandkids, one of them was recently adopted and brought here from Korea and we will have another grandchild, his baby brother, who is expected to arrive in the next few months,” he said.
Cooley, a strong supporter of his alma mater the University of Southern California, said he is barred by law in making any contractual agreements for any future employment. He said he will be “weighing his options” after December.
Cooley is now helping his close personal alley Jackie Lacey to replace him as District Attorney in the upcoming November election.
“Jackie Lacey will probably win the election. She knows how the office runs, and she is a good person, she has the personal experience and qualities needed at this time, and is by far the best choice in this election. She’s also a great trial lawyer. She’s got a guy on death row; she prosecuted three gang members on hate crimes in the Antelope Valley, and put one of them on death row. She knows her stuff,” Cooley said.
He also had strong feelings about Lacey’s opponent, one of his criminal prosecutors Alan Jackson.
“Alan Jackson is a talented trial lawyer amongst talented trial lawyers. He has very good skills in that arena, he has no administrative experience at all, he just doesn’t have it. We are talking about overseeing a $330 million budget, 2,100 employees, 300 DA investigators, law enforcement duties, and you need to have a feel on how to run a big organization, and Jackie has got that,” Cooley said.
He also said “starting the Public Integrity Division, and pursuing public corruption effectively,” was his greatest accomplishment as District Attorney.
“I am also proud of advancing the use of Forensic Sciences and DNA in solving criminal cases with a special emphasis on the utilization of rape kit investigations, and proud of our accomplishment in using DNA in the case of Lonnie David Franklin and the Grim Sleeper Case,” Cooley told LCCN.
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