After he was handcuffed and led off to jail, the mayor of Bell quickly confessed that he and his colleagues had been paying themselves handsome salaries for serving on boards that seldom, and sometimes never, met.
The September 2010 confession and the contrition that came with it may have softened the blow Thursday when Oscar Hernandez — the small-town grocery store owner who became a role model in the working-class town — was punished for his role in a salary scandal that nearly left the city broke.
Facing up to four years in prison, Hernandez, 67, was sentenced to one year in county jail, a punishment that could mean only weeks behind bars.
It was less that the two years in prison one of his colleagues received and far less than the 12-year sentences handed down to former Bell administrators Robert Rizzo and Angela Spaccia.
“Do I think you are the absolute worst of the worst? No. I think you’ve done wrong. I think there were others that were far more manipulative and got far more ill-gotten gains than you did,” said Judge Kathleen Kennedy, who has presided over the Bell corruption trials.
In addition to jail time, Hernandez was sentenced to five years' probation and 1,000 hours of community service and order to pay the city $241,000 in restitution.
Hernandez and four former council colleagues were convicted last year for misappropriation of public funds. Deputy Dist. Atty. Sean Hassett had asked the court to send Hernandez to prison for four years.
“I just want to say I’m sorry for not being so aggressive in my questions to the people when I was in charge in the office,” Hernandez told Kennedy before she handed down the sentence. “And I take all the blame, I put blame on myself .… I feel so sorry and I say sorry to the community of Bell and forgive me.”
One of Hernandez’s sons made a tearful speech in support of his father. “To me he is a person that I look up to, he’s a person that gives me guidance and I thank him for it,” said Agustin Hernandez.
Agustin Hernandez also apologized to the city of Bell and said that he and his family had been ostracized and were trying to move on with their lives.
“We walk around with shame,” he said.
The judge questioned Hernandez’s defense, which was that he had only a sixth-grade education and his limited reading and writing skills were exploited.
“If you didn’t have the ability and the skills to do the job, then you shouldn’t have run for the job,” she said.