LOS ANGELES — A former mayor of the scandal-ridden city of Bell who could not read or write English was sentenced to serve a year in Los Angeles County jail and five years of probation.
Oscar Hernandez was ordered Thursday to pay $241,000 in restitution to the city that was driven close to bankruptcy by a scheme to vastly inflate official salaries.
Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy also ordered Hernandez to perform 1,000 hours of community service, but she suspended a four-year prison term.
Kennedy said the former official should not have run for office because he couldn’t read English and wound up rubber-stamping documents for corrupt city manager Robert Rizzo. Hernandez came to the U.S. from Mexico as a teenager.
Hernandez expressed remorse, saying, “The problem was my English.” He said he should have asked more questions of Rizzo, who was collecting $800,000 a year for running the tiny blue-collar town of 35,000 people.
“Mr. Hernandez is an example of someone who came from another country, made something of himself and ran for public office and was elected,” Kennedy said. “It takes a lot to run a city. One would think that being able to read and write English would be a prerequisite to running a city. I don’t think Mr. Hernandez obtained those skills. Mr. Rizzo took advantage of that, having him sign documents he didn’t read.”
Hernandez is the latest in a series of former officials of the city to be sentenced for corruption-related offenses involving misappropriation of funds.
“There’s a lot of blame to go around, and Mr. Hernandez, there’s blame for you,” said the judge who presided over trials of the former officials. “If you didn’t have the skills to do the job, you shouldn’t have run and taken the position.
“The people of Bell will have to pay very high taxes because you were asleep at the switch. ”
His lawyer, Stanley Friedman, told the judge: “There is a stain that will remain on Mr. Hernandez’s life forever.”
Deputy District Attorney Sean Hassett acknowledged that Hernandez helped prosecutors make their case with a lengthy statement when he was arrested in which he said he and others did a “lousy” job. “He did make what I consider a truthful statement and laid out the case,” Hassett said.
But Hassett faulted Hernandez for covering up Rizzo’s misdeeds.
When the scandal broke in 2010, Hassett said Hernandez was “the face of Bell, and he came out in support of Rizzo,” saying he deserved his huge salary.
“He covered up for Robert Rizzo,” Hassett said. “It was a close thing. He almost saved the day for himself, Robert Rizzo and his co-defendants. ”
Hernandez, the fourth of five former council members sentenced in the public corruption case, went from earning $673 a month on the council to collecting $100,000 a year by inflating his salary and serving on sham commissions that did nothing.
The judge told Hernandez that he could have fired Rizzo, but “you were complacent. You had no reason to upset the apple cart because you were getting a very good salary.”
“Do I think you are the worst of the worst?” the judge said. “No. I think you did wrong.”
Kennedy said Hernandez had been alternately portrayed as “a bumbling bumpkin” or “sophisticated and pulling strings,” but the truth was somewhere in between.
Hernandez’s lawyer said he now lives in a small trailer and suggested he doesn’t have the money to make restitution. Hassett said he owns several buildings in Bell and his assets can be seized to pay restitution.
In the end, the judge said partial blame rests with the citizens of Bell, few of whom voted on city issues or attended council meetings. Although a few residents had expressed concerns about rumors of large salaries, the scandal didn’t come to light until the Los Angeles Times obtained city officials’ true salaries under threat of legal action and published them in 2010. The resulting outrage led to Bell residents recalling the entire city council.
“This wouldn’t have happened if people were as interested then as they are now,” Kennedy said.