Feds probe whether cars of Hispanics were targeted for towing in scandal-ridden LA suburb

Friday, September 10, 2010

New federal probe targets scandal-ridden LA suburb

LOS ANGELES — The blue-collar suburb of Bell, already under investigation for possible misuse of funds and voter fraud, is also facing a federal probe into whether it violated the civil rights of Hispanics by deliberately targeting their cars for towing, officials said Friday.

U.S. Justice Department investigators were trying to determine if the towing was part of a broader scheme to generate more revenue for the city.

Interim Chief Administrative Officer Pedro Carrillo told The Associated Press that city officials haven’t been approached by federal investigators yet but plan to cooperate fully with them.

“I can’t comment on an open investigation, obviously, but the issues have been corrected,” Carrillo said. “We’re currently working with the Police Department to change all of the practices of the past.”

The latest investigation was first reported by the Los Angeles Times citing law enforcement officials who declined to be identified because the investigation was ongoing. The officials said investigators were also looking into whether the city aggressively enforced other municipal codes in an effort to raise money.

The federal investigation follows one launched by the state attorney general and Los Angeles County district attorney after it was learned that Bell had some of the highest-paid officials in the nation, even though one in six residents live in poverty.

Since the salary scandal emerged, numerous residents of the city, where about 90 percent of residents are Hispanic, have complained that young Hispanic men have been targeted for minor traffic infractions.

“If you’re Hispanic they will stop you for any reason,” Frank Lopez, a security guard, recently told The Associated Press as he arrived at City Hall to pay a ticket. “They’ve pulled me over and said, ‘You got papers?’ I told them I was born here.”

Bell police Officer Kurt Owens told the Times police would go after young Hispanics, hoping they were illegal immigrants who were not allowed to hold California driver’s licenses. Citing an unlicensed driver would give police an excuse to tow the car, and the driver would have to pay $300 to get it back.

“We’d look for younger guys in their 20s and 30s, guys with junkier cars, broken lights, loud music or tinted windows,” Owens said.

The median household income is $40,556 a year in Bell, where residents were outraged to learn that four of their five City Council members were paid nearly $100,000 a year for part-time work.

Meanwhile, the city manager was earning nearly $800,000 a year, the assistant city manager $376,288 a year, and the police chief $457,000 a year.

Those three officials have since resigned, and residents have launched a recall campaign against the four council members, all of whom have since reduced their salaries to about $8,000 a year.

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