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Fast rise followed by hard fall for Bell's mayor

Pay scandal turned residents' perception of Oscar Hernandez upside down.

November 07, 2010|By Corina Knoll and Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times

When his outsized salary was revealed, the mayor of Bell left town and took refuge at a sprawling ranch alongside a curving river in Washington's horse country.

But if Oscar Hernandez thought the furor back home would blow over while he relaxed with Robert Rizzo at the city administrator's getaway in the Northwest, he was wrong.

Weeks later, with the anger in Bell at full boil, authorities pounded on his front door with a battering ram and handcuffed the mayor, one of eight former and current city officials arrested that day for allegedly misappropriating more than $5 million in public funds and leaving the town on the brink of financial chaos.

Now facing felony charges and recall from office, and in need of a police escort just to get to a council meeting, Hernandez is the town villain, hardly the man who moved to Bell in the 1980s, bought a corner grocery store and struggled to attract customers in the predominantly white town.

Back then, city officials balked at giving him permission to sell alcohol and even threatened to take his store through eminent domain. Suspicious that the white owner of a nearby liquor store had leaned on his buddies in government, Hernandez became a community activist.

He and his wife Maria rallied support and enlisted neighbors to protest at City Hall. Residents said it was one of the first signs of Latino activism in the small working-class city.

A migrant farm worker who left Mexico as a teenager, Hernandez quickly became a popular figure in town — pulling to the side of the road to talk with pedestrians, gabbing with customers in the aisles of his market, donating food to those he thought could use a hand, giving out candy on Halloween.

"He was humble — my store is your store kind of thing," said Isidro Vargas, 32, who grew up in Bell.

"He was a real cool, honest man."

So it seemed only natural when the friendly market owner with the thick mustache and pompadour was appointed to the City Council. Bell had become dominantly Latino over the years, and now the city's leadership reflected that.

But a completely different portrait of Hernandez emerged this summer when he was accused of misappropriating city money even as jobs were being eliminated and cops were asked to take reduced benefits.

Rizzo became the face of the alleged wrongdoing, the perceived ringleader who drew a fat salary and lucrative benefits and treated the city Treasury as his personal cash box. But Rizzo was an outsider, a guy who lived in a pretty neighborhood in Orange County, not far from the beach.

Hernandez was one of their own.

"At first I thought: He can't be involved — maybe that Rizzo guy had faked stuff," said Patty Tamayo, 39, who lives near Hernandez's store. "I thought Oscar was innocent, because he was so friendly with everyone and so open."

Now she's among those pushing to kick him out of office.

An unlikely official

For an immigrant who spent summers picking crops under the Central Valley sun, had little formal education and struggled with English comprehension, becoming a City Council member was a mark of American success.

But once appointed to the council in 2003, the 63-year-old grocer evolved into an aggressive wheeler and dealer who enjoyed exercising his power, City Hall insiders say. He was confrontational and condescending, colleagues said.

Lorenzo Velez, the lone council member not charged in the public corruption case, described Hernandez as cocky and arrogant, someone who saw himself as a political strongman.

Colleagues also noticed that Hernandez had difficulty reading and understanding English.

Former Councilman Luis Artiga, who resigned in September after his arrest, said he regularly had to read city documents for Hernandez.

"He would tell me [in Spanish], 'Brother, what does this say?' " Artiga said. "I would have to read the document and explain [it] to him."

Stanley L. Friedman, Hernandez's attorney, said the mayor attended school through the sixth grade in Mexico and had only three or four months of formal education in the United States. "His reading is quite limited," the attorney said.

Nevertheless, Hernandez was frequently sought out to sign complex documents and became Rizzo's go-to guy, said David Demerjian, who heads the Los Angeles County district attorney's Public Integrity Division.

Rizzo asked the city clerk last summer to track down Hernandez and have him sign a document that grossly understated the city manager's salary, which had climbed to nearly $800,000, according to court records. Rizzo persisted even after the clerk pointed out that Hernandez had not been mayor when the contract was originally drafted — but never signed — in 2008.

"Rizzo directed the subordinate to obtain Oscar Hernandez's signature anyway because Hernandez would be willing to sign," court documents say.

Building wealth

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