Wringing Bell
From the Sep. 20, 2010, issue of NR.


Daniel Foster

The city was paying seven other mid-level functionaries salaries ranging from $229,992 to $422,707, while mayor Oscar Hernandez and three part-time council members were earning nearly $100,000 each, mostly for sitting on an array of dummy boards whose meetings consisted of little more than calls to order and adjournment. An August 25 Times story details a typical block of such meetings held on one evening in 2006:

The Planning Commission met from 8 p.m. to 8:03 p.m. The Redevelopment Agency followed from 8:03 to 8:04, the Surplus Property Authority from 8:05 to 8:06, the Housing Authority from 8:06 to 8:07 and the Public Finance Authority from 8:07 to 8:08.

In those eight minutes, Hernandez and the others accrued just shy of $32,000 in taxpayer dollars.

And as the investigations progressed, it got worse. Internal documents — some little more than handwritten notes — revealed that the council had given $1.6 million in “loans” to council members and employees for unspecified purposes, many of which had yet to be repaid; that they had bypassed voters in bonding $35 million to buy up blighted property on the 710 that was now facing foreclosure; and that they had illegally raised residents’ property taxes by at least $2.9 million in an effort to cover their spending spree.

The full picture of the Bell, Calif., racket was still coalescing when I pulled up to City Hall in a rented subcompact in early August. I was in L.A. for a couple of days on another assignment, but decided to spend an afternoon in Bell to see what I could see. By then, the two millionaire bureaucrats and the police chief had resigned, the council/syndicate had voted unanimously to accept 90 percent pay cuts, and the mayor had graciously volunteered to finish his term pro bono.

The council building itself is an unassuming red brick of square lines on a shady, well-manicured lawn. It shares space with the police station and sits across a parking lot from the small, pleasant-looking town library. It’s a nice setup, but not ostentatious. Whatever else they’ve done, Bell’s city fathers have not built themselves a castle.

Inside, the lingua franca is a fluid, literate, and cleanly accented Spanglish. In the area between the front desk and a bank of administrative offices, an attractive government press flack named Magdalena Prado, on retainer from neighboring Maywood, is handling the half dozen reporters and citizens who want audiences with Pedro Carrillo, the interim city manager. A team of quiet, serious-looking men and women emerge from one set of closed doors toting reams of paper, walk stiffly across the waiting area, and disappear behind another set of closed doors. These are likely the accountants sent by California controller John Chiang to conduct a six-week audit of the city’s finances, though it is hard to say.

Among the journalists in Bell today is a TV investigative reporter from West Hollywood — the kind of guy who specializes in knocking on doors and sticking microphones in the faces of slumlords, used-car salesmen, and scheming deadbeats. He is sitting in the waiting area with his portly cameraman, hiding behind a newspaper. Whenever one of the maybe-auditors emerges from one of those closed doors, he mutters, not quite under his breath: “How’s that audit coming?”

The most he gets is a tight smile and a shrug from an Asian woman in a skirt suit, before she disappears behind a door marked “EMPLOYEES ONLY.”


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