Bell, California officials ran extortion operation from city hall

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The latest investigative report in the Los Angeles Times on the city of Bell, claims that officials regularly targeted plumbers, carper cleaners and even bottle scavengers, in a code violation revenue-generating operation. As part of the scheme, code enforcement officers impounded vehicles and other valuable property of offenders and extracted hefty fines as part of “civil compromise”, a questionable legal procedure appearing to be more like a shakedown by city officials.

Official looking documents that appeared to be court papers were presented to those cited in the operation to induce them to settle.  Typically, legitimate cases involving civil compromises are reviewed by a judge to make sure a settlement is fair, according to legal experts. Not so in Bell.

The operation ran for at least eight years, according to those familiar with it. When told of the practice, the city’s interim chief administrative officer Pedro Carrillo said he was unaware of it, and ordered it stopped immediately. Officers continue to issue citations although they are no longer impounding vehicles for infractions.

Outside experts say that the practice is unheard of, and is legally questionable for at least two reasons. The civil compromises that officials required to be executed had not been reviewed by judges, and the impounding of property by city officials was purportedly for evidence in cases, although no investigations were found to have been conducted.

Among those cited were a husband and wife handing out flyers, a taxi driver dropping off a customer, a woman selling mangoes and a homeless man collecting bottles. Fines vary widely and seemingly without reason; a fine for the same offense could be $75 for one person and $200 for another. Sources say that city records show at least 500 civil compromises were executed.

The latest episode in the Bell, California corruption scandal involves the use of hundreds of "civil compromises" to extort fees and fines from residents and visitors

Plumber Frank Santiago experienced the program firsthand when visiting a local resident with a plumbing problem. While attempting to leave after finding the problem already solved, he was blocked in the driveway by a code enforcement officer. The officer asked to see Santiago’s business license for working in Bell, even though Santiago hadn’t done any work.  The truck was impounded.

Santiago and a company supervisor showed up at city hall the next day to retrieve the van. The city agreed to release the truck only after Santiago signed a civil compromise and paid fines and fees for all 10 vehicles in the company’s fleet amounting to $2,200.

Another person detained by code enforcement officials was Alfredo Moreno, 73, an unemployed market employee. Moreno got by collecting bottles and cans on local streets and in alleys. During a good day, he made about $10 to $15.

In April, he was stopped by a code enforcement official for “unauthorized collection” of recyclable materials, and his 1999 Ford van impounded as evidence. Moreno was told that he could settle at city hall, or fight the charge in court. Two weeks later he appeared at city hall to pay a $50 fine, and another $500 to retrieve his van. Moreno, a Spanish speaker, said he didn’t understand the document, and was afraid to challenge it.

The current city administrator, Carrillo, said that code enforcement officers told him that seized property was not always returned, and city records don’t document whether it had. In a case involving Alfonso Lewis Booker, a code enforcement officer took 58 pieces of jewelry that he had been planning to sell in a gas station parking lot. After he signed a civil compromise and paid a fine, officials told him that he had waited too long to retrieve his property, and it was no longer available.

The code violation operation was ostensibly supervised by Eric Eggena, Bell’s city prosecutor and director of general services. He is said to have made the decisions on how much to charge in fees and fines for the code violations. Eggena made $421,402 annually and was fired along with other city officials that were accused of looting the blue-collar city.

The Los Angeles Times

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