US Justice Department investigating Bell officials allegedly violating Latinos' civil rights

The U.S. Justice Department has launched an investigation in Bell, to determine whether city officials violated civil rights of Latino residents by aggressively towing cars and charging residents exorbitant fees to get their vehicles back, it was reported today.

Federal officials are also looking into complaints about other ways the city tried to boost revenues, including through aggressive code enforcement, law enforcement sources told the Los Angeles Times.

Some Bell police officers said top brass gave them what amounted to a daily quota to find cars to tow, with some saying that their jobs were at risk if they didn't get enough cars towed, The Times reported earlier this week.

Bell charges $300 for unlicensed motorists to retrieve their cars, triple what Los Angeles County and neighboring cities charge, according to The Times.

The federal probe comes as the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office and the California attorney general are investigating high salaries for Bell officials, as well as allegations of voter fraud and questionable financial transactions.

The state controller has also discovered two instances in which Bell illegally overcharged property owners in taxes, according to The Times.

An FBI agent with the agency's public corruption squad and a federal prosecutor have interviewed at least two members of the Bell Police Department, sources told The Times.

They spoke on the condition they not be named because the investigation is ongoing.

If officials find wrongdoing, the goal would be to punish those responsible and not to establish federal oversight over Bell or the Bell Police Department, one of the sources said.

The city budget shows Bell was generating increased revenue from various fees and taxes, most notably from vehicle impound charges, The Times reported.

One of the steepest increases in revenue came from impound fees, and records show the city made more than $800,000 from those fees last year, according to The Times.

Some Bell residents have complained police officers pulled over motorists and towed their vehicles if the drivers didn't have licenses. Bell has a large immigrant population, as well as many illegal immigrants.

Bell officials have denied illegally ticketing vehicles or having any type of towing quota.

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