The trial of the former mayor of Bell, California, has gone to the jury. Oscar Hernandez was one of eight elected officials and administrators in the city of 38,000 to face corruption charges. One top administrator took an annual salary of $800,000 from a city budget of just $14 million. Hernandez and other council members were paid nearly $100,000 a year for part-time jobs. The usual pay for part-time council members in other cities would be $5,000.
Hernandez has professed his innocence with a strange twist. He claims that he was too stupid to know that he was breaking the law. ABC summarized Hernandez’ lawyer’s closing arguments:
The unschooled and illiterate former mayor of the scandal-ridden suburban city of Bell had no training that would have alerted him that his huge salary was illegal, his lawyer told a jury in closing arguments.
Former Mayor Oscar Hernandez didn’t have a college or high school degree and didn’t even finish elementary school, defense attorney Stanley Friedman said at the corruption trial.
Friedman argued Thursday that financial advisers hired by the city could have informed Hernandez that salaries being paid to council members were illegal, but no one did that.
“They didn’t say, ‘Stop in the name of the law. These salaries are illegal,’” he said.
I’m dumb and no one told me it was illegal might work for someone who blunders into a situation where the charges are a misdemeanor, but despite Hernandez’ stated ignorance, he had plenty of experience as an elected official to take full responsibility for his actions. He served as mayor in 2009, but also in two previous stints during 2006 and 2007.
Hernandez is brighter than he claims. While he points to his lack of education for his errors as mayor, he has made enough money to have rentals. One of those was the site of a “super lab” for meth. Hernandez was not charged in that case, although his son lived on one of the other houses in the property complex.
When the story first broke in 2010, Hernandez defended his salary and the $800,000 paid to Chief Administrative Officer Robert Rizzo.
“Our streets are cleaner, we have lovely parks, better lighting throughout the area, our community is better,” Hernandez said, according to the newspaper. “These things just don’t happen, they happen because he had a vision and made it happen.”
Clean streets, nice parks and better lighting hardly need a vision worth $800K a year, but Hernandez also had an explanation for his salary.
“The average income for a person in our area is $32,000 and $38,000 a year. In a troubled city, the city council should get paid a little more.”
In other words, I’m mayor of a crappy city with troublesome people and I should be paid a lot because I have to put up with them.
On second thought, perhaps there is something to Hernandez’ defense that he is stupid.
A local blog, Watch Our City, claims that when the scandal broke in 2010, Hernandez hired local thugs to march through a demonstration demanding a resignation of city officials.
On Monday, three young Latino men provoked an angry crowd outside of Bell city hall amidst a swirling of hundreds of residents as they loudly protested the city’s corrupt practices and looting of the city treasury. Fueling the collective civic disgust was anger at the unfathomable betrayal by Bell’s leadership triggering heavy anti-city council sentiment. The three young men dared carry a large 6 ft by 4 ft banner stating “Keep the Mayor” into this maelstrom of civic angst. Turns out, they were 18th Street gang members from Cudahy, hired by Bell mayor Oscar Hernandez.
The young men, tattooed, wearing crooked bling-bling baseball hats (one of them with the pirated version of the Coco Chanel emblem printed all over the hat’s canvas), and lowrider pants, when confronted by a lady resident from Huntington Park, responded “Don’t you know who we are? We’re 18th Street from Cudahy, straight up, homey!” Later we come to find out that Bell’s mayor paid them $250 dollars for the gig to carry pro-city council banner. They not only carried the banner, but made a courageous and highly incendiary incursion into a crowd chanting “FUERA!, FUERA! (Out!) which surrounded a picnic table commandeered by the John and Ken KFI Talk Radio team broadcasting live. In light of everything else happening around Bell, it is not so shocking news to hear that Bell’s mayor hires local gang thugs. Earlier, as the crowds began to gather steam, another trio of men were holding up the same pro-city council banner made of heavy vinyl. Except that instead of provoking anger, they provoke pity, as the men were in their 70′s. They too were paid to be there. One old man, when questioned if he knew what was going on, responded in Spanish “Pues, no se que esta pasando, pero me pagaron, un tal Oscar” (Well, I don’t now what is going on, but they paid me, a certain Oscar).
If accurate, this only adds to the bizarre tale of Bell. Far from being ignorant of right and wrong, Hernandez and his associates were arrogant and viewed the city as their own personal bank, while treating the residents with contempt. The jury shouldn’t take long on this one.