By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Los Angeles County's tax assessor was arrested on Wednesday and charged with accepting bribes from a consultant whose clients he allegedly aided by slashing their property values to save them millions of dollars in taxes, prosecutors said.
Assessor John Noguez, who went on leave in June after it was revealed he was under investigation, was led out of his house in handcuffs by investigators with the local District Attorney's Office.
Noguez will be allowed to keep his salary of $192,000 a year while the case against him proceeds because under California law the salary is tied to the office, which he still holds, a Los Angeles County spokesman said.
His case has caused an uproar in Los Angeles County politics and led officials to place a local referendum on the November ballot over whether the assessor's position should be appointed. Backers of the initiative say allowing the assessor to be elected invites influence peddling.
"Los Angeles County voters and taxpayers deserve honest, hard-working elected and appointed officials who will serve the best interests of the people," District Attorney Steve Cooley told reporters.
"Residents must have confidence that their government is not for sale to the highest bidder or the highest briber."
The criminal complaint against Noguez alleged that as part of his bribery scheme, he accepted checks made out to him under the name Rodriguez. His real name is Juan Renaldo Rodriguez, prosecutors say.
Tax consultant Ramin Salari, who was a contributor to Noguez's election campaign, and Noguez's chief property appraiser, Mark McNeil, also were arrested on Wednesday.
The criminal complaint accuses Noguez of taking $185,000 in bribes from Salari between February and September 2010 and also said he accepted a list of properties represented by Salari.
Soon after getting the list, Noguez had McNeil appear at hearings and reduce the assessed value of numerous properties, including the site of an Old Spaghetti Factory restaurant in Hollywood, prosecutors said.
When the properties were valued at lesser amounts, their owners owed less in taxes, prosecutors said.
Noguez is charged with two dozen felony counts, including accepting bribes, perjury, conspiracy and misappropriation by a public officer. He faces a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison if convicted.
Noguez's defense team will "vigorously defend Mr. Noguez in the courts, which is where this should play out," his attorney Michael Proctor said in a statement.
The measure on the November ballot would not automatically make the assessor an appointed position because the California constitution requires the office holder to be elected. But a yes vote could lead county officials to seek to have the state Legislature propose a constitutional amendment.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Eric Walsh)