FBI looking at former St. Tammany Parish assessor

Federal investigators are scrutinizing the St. Tammany Parish Assessor’s Office, a spokeswoman for the office has confirmed, and sources with knowledge of the probe say it centers on dealings between Slidell developer Robert L. Torres and former Assessor Patricia Schwarz Core.

Current Assessor Louis Fitzmorris declined to answer any specific questions about the investigation, only confirming through a spokeswoman that it is ongoing.

“Since we came into office in January, we have cooperated fully in the federal investigation and will continue to cooperate as long as we need to,” the spokeswoman, Sheri Campbell, said Thursday.

The probe has led to multiple visits from the FBI, Fitzmorris told The New Orleans Advocate in an earlier interview.

WVUE-TV reported in March 2012 that Core was being investigated by the FBI, but it didn’t specify the nature of the inquiry. At the time, Core refused to comment.

However, sources told The New Orleans Advocate that investigators are looking at Core’s dealings with Torres, whose company, Tammany Holding Corp., is the developer of Lakeshore Estates and other subdivisions on a huge tract of land east of Interstate 10 near Slidell. The probe apparently centers on whether Core gave Torres breaks on assessments in exchange for campaign donations or other gifts.

Core was defeated by Fitzmorris in 2011, losing her seat by just 122 votes, but he did not take office until the beginning of this year. Toward the end of her tenure, Core reduced the valuations on a number of properties in Lakeshore Estates.

Core denied any knowledge of the investigation Friday and said she has not been interviewed by FBI agents. “I don’t know anything,” she said.

Torres likewise said he knew nothing of a probe, and said there was nothing to investigate. “We’ve got nothing to hide from anybody,” he said, adding that he is one of the parish’s largest taxpayers.

Torres was Core’s largest campaign contributor, records show. On a single day in November 2011 — a few days before the election she lost — he and his son accounted for $10,000 in contributions to Core’s campaign. He also gave her $4,000 in 2010, and at least $2,000 in previous years.

Core said, however, that she didn’t cut Torres any slack. “There were no special favors for Mr. Torres,” she said, describing him as a casual acquaintance.

Core acknowledged she gave all Lakeshore Estates homeowners a one-year reduction in their assessments for the 2011 tax year because they complained that a concrete-crushing operation had hurt their property values.

Torres, who built the subdivision, also leased nearby land to the state for a total of $1.8 million to serve as a staging area for the construction of the new I-10 twin spans. It later was used to crush concrete from the demolition of the old, storm-damaged spans, according to The Times-Picayune.

The operation outraged residents of the upscale subdivision, who complained bitterly about dust and noise. The area is not zoned for heavy industry, but then-Parish President Kevin Davis declared a state of emergency, initially after Hurricane Katrina and then again in 2009, suspending zoning regulations east of Lakeshore Estates, The Times-Picayune reported at the time.

Core said Friday that she agreed to temporarily lower property values in the area because of the complaints. The only homeowner in Lakeshore Estates who didn’t get the reduction was Torres, she said, because he declined it. Records show that his property values did not change from 2010 to 2011.

However, a change order submitted to the Louisiana Tax Commission by Core’s office on Dec. 10, 2012, called for a reduction in the value of his home on Lakeshore Boulevard from about $2 million to about $1.6 million. That would translate to a property tax break of roughly $6,100.

The change order cited increased depreciation as the reason for the cut.

According to the St. Tammany Parish Assessor’s Office website, the proposed 2013 tax assessment for Torres’ home is based on a value of $1.7 million — slightly higher than the adjustment made under Core but still lower than in previous years. The office could not be reached Friday to explain the change.

Core also said that in 2012, Torres’ son, Robert L. Torres Jr., sought a “use value” assessment for some undeveloped property in the area. That classification, which is for agricultural, timber and marsh land, is a boon to property owners because it allows them to pay taxes on 10 percent of the value of their land based on its current use, rather than its fair market value.

Core said the staff appraiser reviewed the requests and agreed that a change was warranted.

“Mr. Torres never asked me for anything,” Core said, and she was adamant that he had not given her anything.

The senior Torres echoed those points. Not only has he not sought special treatment, he said, but he has donated valuable land to the parish, including a parcel worth an estimated $2.5 million for an events center.

In addition, Torres said, “I’m one of the biggest taxpayers in the parish,” estimating his annual property tax bill at $150,000. “They ought to be giving a rebate to Tammany Holding Corp. for all the taxes we’ve paid,” he said. “It’s a shame we have to pay those taxes. We made that development — it was nothing but swampland.”

The federal investigation is not the first time Core has fallen under scrutiny. The state legislative auditor has issued two reports that criticized the office under her management. The more recent, issued in September, faulted her administration for failing to keep track of employee hours and not documenting credit-card use. Core said neither accusation was true.

An earlier audit report blasted Core’s office for running up nearly $36,000 in credit card charges for meals, $18,085 of which was not properly documented. In 11 cases, employees who had already received per-diem meal expenses also charged meals on their credit cards. Core was further criticized for $1,825 in personal charges.

The 2012 WVUE-TV report outlining a federal investigation into Core’s office said that authorities had subpoenaed the office’s credit-card records, among other documents.