Last week’s convictions, on public-corruption charges, of five former city council members in the small Los Angeles County town of Bell suggest that mediocrity, ignorance, and incompetence are sufficient qualities for holding office in Southern California. Ex-mayor Oscar Hernandez, for instance, claimed to be too stupid to have understood the crimes that he committed. His lawyer, Stanley Friedman, argued that the former mayor, who is illiterate, could not have known that his $100,000 annual salary was larger than the $673 per month ($8,076 per year) legal maximum for the part-time position. Thus, Hernandez’s financial advisers must have misled him. “We elect people who have a good heart, someone who can listen to your problems and look you in the eye,” Friedman told jurors. “There are a lot of elected officials who may not be the most scholarly. We had a vice president of the United States who didn’t know how to spell potato.”
This holy-fool characterization would have been a tough sell in the best of circumstances, but it was a nonstarter against the prosecution’s evidence that Hernandez and his co-defendants—Luis Artiga, George Cole, George Mirabal, and Victor Bello, along with former vice mayor Teresa Jacobo—had conspired to loot the city’s treasury. The jury convicted all but Artiga, the only one of the six defendants who had not also served as Bell’s mayor, on multiple counts.
Despite being unlettered, Hernandez was a cunning political operator. During his mayoralty, state authorities discovered a high-capacity methamphetamine lab in a rental unit on a property Hernandez owned (his son and daughter live in one of the other units). Hernandez claimed ignorance, telling the Los Angeles Times, “Nobody smelled nothing.” During the 2010 downfall of his regime—after the Times revealed Bell city manager Robert Rizzo was pulling down $1.5 million in total annual benefits, and while thousands of angry residents in the city of 35,000 were converging on City Hall—Hernandez brought in groups of goons (hired from a local gang, according to an independent reporter) to carry “Keep the Mayor” signs and intimidate demonstrators. The corruption trial itself was plagued by jury-tampering claims and counterclaims, and an L.A. superior court judge dismissed about half the charges after irregularities that led to the dismissal of one juror and harassment charges from others.
Hernandez is not alone in his blithe disregard for what most Americans would consider normal ethics. Randy Adams, Bell’s subsequently ousted chief of police, worked out a $400,000 lifetime-disability package at the same time he was able to run the Glendale 5K Downtown Dash in just under 32 minutes. When an L.A. Times reporter confronted city manager Rizzo about his spiked compensation package, he replied, “If that’s a number people choke on, maybe I’m in the wrong business,” preposterously adding, “I could go into private business and make that money.” Rizzo’s assistant manager, Angela Spaccia, had a similar response: “I would have to argue you get what you pay for.” Somehow, Hernandez managed to pen a letter to the Times in 2010, asserting that “the big picture of city compensation shows that salaries of the City Manager and other top city staff have been in line with similar positions.”
Such corruption, which many residents describe as “Mafioso-style,” is not unique to the area. Bell is one of a cluster of small cities located east-southeast of downtown L.A.—including Maywood, Cudahy, Montebello, and the legendarily corrupt, 112-population, “exclusively industrial” town of Vernon—that have seen whopping debts, irregularities in public services, and suspicious personnel shuffling. Rizzo and Spaccia, who face their own corruption trials later this year, more or less split their time between running Bell and Maywood.
The Bell trial is striking for the apparent presumption that ignorance could somehow be an excuse. This applies even to the story’s putative good guys. In 2011, Bell councilman Lorenzo Velez, appointed in 2009 as a reformer of sorts, admitted to CBS News that he “should have asked more questions” and pled, “If ignorance is a crime, I guess I’m guilty.” And Artiga, the one defendant to be acquitted last week, successfully argued that he was too far out of the loop and incurious to be convicted. That contention drew a sharp response from Nestor Valencia, a longtime Bell gadfly elected to the city council after the ouster of Rizzo’s group. “You don’t take a $100,000 job and say, ‘I don’t know what’s going on,’” Valencia told me last week.
But in L.A. County, that’s exactly what you say. Bell is a 30-minute bus ride from downtown Los Angeles, a city whose term-limited mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, managed to win two elections but was unable, in four tries, to pass California’s state bar exam with the legal education he obtained at the unaccredited People’s College of Law. The hard-won credentials of the two Democrats vying to succeed him—city controller Wendy Greuel and city councilman Eric Garcetti—seem almost unnecessary in this context. Their primary battle earlier this month drew vanishingly few voters, and for good reason. Not voting is a rational choice in L.A., a city of unparalleled natural and cultural attractions, whose politicians—from city council members to county supervisors to tax assessors, such as L.A. County assessor John Noguez, a career politician charged with bribery in October—tend to be small-time.
Los Angeles’s political environment winds up looking disturbingly like a municipal banana republic: one-party rule; an unchanging cast of characters (despite term limits); non-responsive politics; ransacked treasuries; increasingly shameless self-dealing; and ever more baroque and surreal lawmaking (L.A. can’t solve its traffic problems but has succeeded in banning plastic bags). Lack of natural selection also generates a type of maladapted leadership, the political equivalent of the dodo bird. The self-regard of some corrupt politicians is so great that pleading stupidity would be beneath them. But in Southland politics, it seems, no bar is too low.