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JOHN NOGUEZ SAGA: Ramin Salari Wants Plea Deal Enforced

Salari says a judge agreed to his plea in an L.A. real estate corruption case, then reneged after he spilled his guts to prosecutors

February 2, 2023

By Meghann Cuniff • Los Angeles Magazine

A tax consultant accused of bribing a Los Angeles County assessor in an alleged real estate tax fraud scheme is asking the California Supreme Court to force a judge to approve his plea deal in the decade-old corruption case.

Attorneys for Ramin Salari petitioned the high court on Friday, asking that L.A. County Superior Court Judge Stephen Marcus be compelled to consent to the agreement Salari made with prosecutors, despite the judge’s objection that the lenient sentence being offered doesn’t properly address the magnitude of public corruption.

First filed in 2012, the criminal charges relate to an alleged bribery scheme that accuses former L.A. County assessor John Noguez and former chief appraiser Mark McNeil of fixing property assessments for Salari’s clients to lower their tax bills in exchange for campaign donations.

The story was first broke by Hews Media Group-Community News, an exposé that then District Attorney Steve Cooley called, “the biggest financial scandal in Los Angeles history.”

Salari’s plea bargain, according to court documents, would reduce 11 felony charges to a single count of grand theft, with a sentence of four years probation, no prison time, and a $9.1 million fine.

Marcus rejected the deal on January 6, but he did so after Salari had already waived his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and described the crimes in a two-hour recorded interview with prosecutors.

Salari’s lawyers argue that he only did so because he believed Marcus was signing off on the deal, and that the judge’s about-face amounts to “unlawful interference” with Salari’s Constitutional protections. The attorneys further contend that Marcus’ change of heart could have far-reaching effects if the high court doesn’t step in after a three-judge panel with the 2nd District Court of Appeal sided with Marcus on Jan. 20.

Prosecutors have already received “a significant, material benefit” from the deal in the form of Salani’s recorded interview, according to the petition from Salari’s lawyers at Larson LLP, led by former U.S. District judge Stephen Larson.

In the interview, Salari “answered questions about his and his co-defendants’ role in the alleged conspiracy and clarified the import and interplay,” his lawyers state in the motion, adding, “Should this decision stand, [prosecutors] and defendants alike will be loath to engage in the plea bargaining process when they cannot rely on the Court’s representations on the record. This will jeopardize the speed and efficiency of prosecutions across the state and infect the integrity of the plea bargaining system as a whole.”

Marcus previously defended his reversal when rejecting a request from Salari’s lawyers that he recuse himself from the case. He agreed that he told Salari his approval of the deal depended on Salari speaking with prosecutors, and he acknowledged stating that he would accept the deal later that day if the attorneys returned to his courtroom. But he also said he included a significant caveat: “Given my conflicted feelings, I stated that I hoped I did not change my mind before the parties returned.”

In a Jan. 17 filing, Marcus wrote, “My decision to reject the plea bargain was influenced by the prosecution’s representation that while the case was old affecting the memories of witnesses, there was no representation that the case could not be proven. My concern was that an equitable and just result must be reached in the plea bargain, and that this plea bargain was not in the best interest of society given the seriousness of the allegations involving public corruption, the amount of money acquired from the fraud, and Defendant Salari’s alleged central role in the scheme.”

The petition filed Friday by Salari’s lawyers asks the state Supreme Court to immediately stay the criminal proceedings while it considers the appeal. Salari’s legal team want a decision before his preliminary hearing resumes with Marcus, currently scheduled for Feb. 21. The hearing is a multi-day proceeding in which Marcus is to hear testimony from witnesses and decide if there is enough evidence for a jury trial to proceed.