A Bell city councilman says he and his family live in a small apartment behind the church where he is the pastor — even though he also owns a large home in Chino.
Luis A. Artiga has owned the Chino home for at least eight years. He was appointed to the City Council in 2008 and was elected in 2009. He insisted in an interview that he lives in Bell but regularly goes to his Chino home to maintain it.
On his voter registration affidavit, he says that he lives at the Bell Community Church, where he is pastor. In addition to Artiga, his wife and three adult sons are also registered as living at the Gage Avenue church, county records show.
But according to records at the San Bernardino County assessor's office. Luis and Miriam Artiga are receiving a homeowners' exemption on the property in Chino.
Rhonda Pfeiffer, principal appraiser with the assessor's office, said that to be eligible for the homeowners' exemption, people must be living in the home as a primary residence at 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1 of the year.
"You cannot live at two places at the same time," she said. The exemption reduces the assessed value by $7,000 and reduces the property tax bill, she said.
Over the last few weeks, a reporter for The Times has seen Artiga at his apartment at the Bell church several times. Artiga says the second-story apartment on an alley behind the church is 1,100 square feet.
But on Monday morning, a reporter found him watering his lawn at his four-bedroom, ranch-style Chino home, about 35 miles east of Bell.
About noon, his sons left the home and spotted a Times reporter and photographer outside the property. The reporter and photographer knocked on the door three times and got no answer. A short time later, the sons returned and pulled up to the garage, using an SUV to shield a BMW from view.
The 49-year-old Artiga, wearing a baseball cap, then came out of the garage and got into the BMW and drove away at a high rate of speed as the SUV drove slowly behind.
In an interview later that day, Artiga said he fled the Chino house because he didn't want the media in the area. He also said he feared for his life because he and other council members have received death threats since the salary scandal in Bell became news.
He said he only goes to Chino to check on the house, pick up the mail and water the plants.
"I don't live in Chino," Artiga reiterated. "If I go there it's during the day to turn on the sprinkler. I don't sleep there."
He said his 5-year-old daughter graduated from preschool in Bell and will begin attending elementary school there in September.
Occasionally, Artiga said he stays at the house for special occasions such as birthday parties. "And that has happened only twice in the last six to seven months," he said.
Artiga said he most recently stayed at the Chino house July 27. That day, two fellow council members announced that they would continue their terms without pay during a council session in which residents demanded that he and three other council members resign.
"The Sheriff's Department told us that night not to sleep" at the apartment, Artiga said. "They told us to stay at the Chino house, so that time, yes, I was there," he said.
Artiga said he bought the house in 1993 with his parents. He says he didn't know to change the exemption form on file with San Bernardino County when he moved to Bell. In fact, he said he wasn't aware of the form.
In recent years, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley has successfully prosecuted several politicians for registering to vote and getting elected in areas in which they don't live. Prosecutors recently indicted L.A. City Councilman Richard Alarcon and his wife on perjury and voter fraud charges for allegedly falsely claiming an address as his residence. Alarcon was also charged with filing a false declaration of candidacy.
"They have to register to vote at their domicile and can only be elected in the city or district where they live," said David Demerjian, head of the district attorney's public integrity section. "We basically get them for lying. They perjure themselves when they register to vote at an address that isn't their true residence."
Demerjian said there is currently no investigation into Artiga's residency status.