Bell scandal makes officials outcasts in hometown

Mercer 10511

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File photo: (L-R) City of Bell council members Lorenzo Velez, vice mayor Teresa Jacobo, mayor Oscar Hernandez, Councilman George Mirabel and Councilman Luis Artiga listen to residents asking them to resign during a council meeting on July 26, 2010 in Bell, California.

There was a time in this modest blue-collar community when Mayor Oscar Hernandez was all but hailed as a superhero, the big friendly guy who said hello to everybody when he wasn't busy greeting them at his venerable corner grocery store.

Those days ended abruptly last July after it was disclosed that Hernandez was presiding over a City Council with four of five members who were paying themselves and other leaders exorbitant salaries while one in six residents live in poverty.

Now all that has changed as the ousted city manager, the mayor and the three other council members face criminal charges in a scandal the district attorney called "corruption on steroids."

Hernandez and council members George Mirabal, Luis Artiga and Teresa Jacobo, who once trumpeted themselves as champions of the people in this modest, largely Latino suburb of Los Angeles, have become all but pariahs in a community where many have lived and worked for decades.

At the Funeraria Del Angel Mirabal mortuary, which Mirabal and his family have been associated with for decades, no one would talk about him on a recent day. They pointed instead to flyers posted on every door noting that - although his name still appears on the sign outside - his family sold the business to the Service Corporation International funeral home chain 20 years ago.

"I can confirm he is no longer with our company," was all Service International spokeswoman Jennifer Roberts would say about him. Although Roberts wouldn't say when Mirabal left, several people say they understood he was there until recently. When a resident questioned a mortuary bill at a City Council meeting in July, Mirabal told him to call him the next day and he would straighten it out.

Mirabal's name is also plastered on another sign at the mortuary these days, one in the window of the manager's office demanding that he and the other disgraced council members resign or be recalled.

A mile away, at the corner grocery store Hernandez has owned for 30 years, a large sign out front says it is under new management and that the name is being changed from Oscar's Korner Market to Osito's Meat Market. A cashier who declined to give her name said she hasn't seen the mayor in a month, although he lives right down the street. She said she didn't know the name of the market's new manager.

Now Hernandez' street, like others all over town, is lined with houses with red "Recall" signs displayed prominently in their front yards. (A group leading a recall drive against him and the others turned in petitions last week and are waiting to have the signatures verified.)

"The whole community is disappointed," said Sam Romo, who has lived in Bell more than 30 years and grew up playing with the mayor's son. He recalled dropping by Hernandez' store after school nearly every day, where the mayor would ask, "How's it going, Sammy?" and give him candy.

"He was almost like a superhero to the community, you know what I mean? The whole community trusted him," Romo said, noting that Hernandez, who arrived in Bell in the late 1960s as the town was undergoing a demographic shift, became one of its first Latino leaders. He's been active in the Chamber of Commerce, the local Masonic Lodge and other organizations.

In the first days after the salary scandal broke, Hernandez still maintained a high profile, handing out groceries at the city's monthly food bank and exchanging hugs with longtime friends. Several people, although admitting they were shocked by news of his salary, said that day they were reluctant to criticize him because they had known him and his family for years.

But in a small town where everyone seems to know everyone else, that quickly changed as word spread that various government agencies were also investigating allegations of voter fraud, racial profiling and other wrongdoing. At a City Council meeting attended by thousands of angry residents later that month, Hernandez and the others were showered with boos, insulted in English and Spanish and told to resign.

The mayor and Jacobo both spoke publicly of standing up for their people rather than resigning after the salary scandal was first reported by the Los Angeles Times. That's an expression several people now say they find irritating.

"He's a public servant and he's calling us his people," longtime resident Roger Ramirez said with disgust. "His people right now are in prison. Those are his people."

Mirabal is jailed in lieu of $260,000 bail, but Hernandez, Jacobo and Artiga have posted bail and returned home. Members of the community say they have been keeping low profiles since the morning of Sept. 21, when they were hauled off to jail in handcuffs.

A City Council meeting is scheduled for Monday night, and interim City Manager Pedro Carrillo said he expects those who aren't in jail to attend. He acknowledged, though, that he hasn't heard from Hernandez since his arrest.

"I have requested a briefing from the mayor, as we do before any council meeting," Carrillo said Friday. "I haven't heard back."

Hernandez and his fellow council members are also due in court Oct. 21 to be arraigned on charges of misappropriation of public funds. Also facing charges are former City Manager Robert Rizzo, former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia and former council members George Cole and Victor Bello.

Spaccia was paid $376,288 a year. When numerous perks like vacation, insurance and other benefits were added to Rizzo's $787,637 annual salary, his total compensation package was about $1.5 million a year.

In a brief phone interview, Artiga said he expects to be exonerated, adding the congregation at Bell Community Church, where he is the longtime pastor, has stood by him and that most of his flock continue to attend services.

"They recognize my 17 years of service to the community," he said softly.

Phone numbers for Mirabal and Hernandez have been disconnected, and a polite young man who answered the door at Jacobo's home said simply, "She's not available."

Her street is also lined with red "Recall" signs, including one in the front yard of Juan Martinez, who said he's known Jacobo and her family for more than 20 years.

The retired railroad worker said he was friendly with all of the council members until shortly before the scandal broke.

"George Mirabal himself assured me they were doing nothing wrong," he said, adding he often accepted invitations from city officials to sing mariachi music at various community events. He was never paid, he said, because the officials told him the city didn't have any money.

"I really thought they were broke," he added. "Otherwise I might have charged them."

© 2010 The Associated Press.

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