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Fast rise followed by hard fall for Bell’s mayor

When his outsized salary was revealed, the mayor of Bell left town and took refuge at a sprawling ranch alongside a curving river in Washington’s horse country.

But if Oscar Hernandez thought the furor back home would blow over while he relaxed with Robert Rizzo at the city administrator’s getaway in the Northwest, he was wrong.

Weeks later, with the anger in Bell at full boil, authorities pounded on his front door with a battering ram and handcuffed the mayor, one of eight former and current city officials arrested that day for allegedly misappropriating more than $5 million in public funds and leaving the town on the brink of financial chaos.

Now facing felony charges and recall from office, and in need of a police escort just to get to a council meeting, Hernandez is the town villain, hardly the man who moved to Bell in the 1980s, bought a corner grocery store and struggled to attract customers in the predominantly white town.

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Back then, city officials balked at giving him permission to sell alcohol and even threatened to take his store through eminent domain. Suspicious that the white owner of a nearby liquor store had leaned on his buddies in government, Hernandez became a community activist.

He and his wife Maria rallied support and enlisted neighbors to protest at City Hall. Residents said it was one of the first signs of Latino activism in the small working-class city.

A migrant farm worker who left Mexico as a teenager, Hernandez quickly became a popular figure in town — pulling to the side of the road to talk with pedestrians, gabbing with customers in the aisles of his market, donating food to those he thought could use a hand, giving out candy on Halloween.

“He was humble — my store is your store kind of thing,” said Isidro Vargas, 32, who grew up in Bell.

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“He was a real cool, honest man.”

So it seemed only natural when the friendly market owner with the thick mustache and pompadour was appointed to the City Council. Bell had become dominantly Latino over the years, and now the city’s leadership reflected that.

But a completely different portrait of Hernandez emerged this summer when he was accused of misappropriating city money even as jobs were being eliminated and cops were asked to take reduced benefits.

Rizzo became the face of the alleged wrongdoing, the perceived ringleader who drew a fat salary and lucrative benefits and treated the city Treasury as his personal cash box. But Rizzo was an outsider, a guy who lived in a pretty neighborhood in Orange County, not far from the beach.

Hernandez was one of their own.

“At first I thought: He can’t be involved — maybe that Rizzo guy had faked stuff,” said Patty Tamayo, 39, who lives near Hernandez’s store. “I thought Oscar was innocent, because he was so friendly with everyone and so open.”

Now she’s among those pushing to kick him out of office.

An unlikely official

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For an immigrant who spent summers picking crops under the Central Valley sun, had little formal education and struggled with English comprehension, becoming a City Council member was a mark of American success.

But once appointed to the council in 2003, the 63-year-old grocer evolved into an aggressive wheeler and dealer who enjoyed exercising his power, City Hall insiders say. He was confrontational and condescending, colleagues said.

Lorenzo Velez, the lone council member not charged in the public corruption case, described Hernandez as cocky and arrogant, someone who saw himself as a political strongman.

Colleagues also noticed that Hernandez had difficulty reading and understanding English.

Former Councilman Luis Artiga, who resigned in September after his arrest, said he regularly had to read city documents for Hernandez.

“He would tell me [in Spanish], ‘Brother, what does this say?’ ” Artiga said. “I would have to read the document and explain [it] to him.”

Stanley L. Friedman, Hernandez’s attorney, said the mayor attended school through the sixth grade in Mexico and had only three or four months of formal education in the United States. “His reading is quite limited,” the attorney said.

Nevertheless, Hernandez was frequently sought out to sign complex documents and became Rizzo’s go-to guy, said David Demerjian, who heads the Los Angeles County district attorney’s Public Integrity Division.

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Rizzo asked the city clerk last summer to track down Hernandez and have him sign a document that grossly understated the city manager’s salary, which had climbed to nearly $800,000, according to court records. Rizzo persisted even after the clerk pointed out that Hernandez had not been mayor when the contract was originally drafted — but never signed — in 2008.

“Rizzo directed the subordinate to obtain Oscar Hernandez’s signature anyway because Hernandez would be willing to sign,” court documents say.

Building wealth

Hernandez, who once sold Tijuana pottery at swap meets with his wife to make ends meet, earned nearly $100,000 a year as mayor, a part-time job that usually called for one meeting a month.

In 2008 divorce documents, he told his wife he made much less and listed his city salary at $60,360.

“I can just barely make ends meet, and Maria is pretending that I am made of gold!” Hernandez said in the divorce papers. He also listed the store’s annual income at $27,600, though he told The Times earlier this year that the store’s profit was more than his city salary.

The divorce was never finalized and the couple continue to co-own the store and two rental properties, one of which was raided last year by narcotics investigators. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said investigators found methamphetamine inside the home, but county fire officials said their tests showed no trace of the substance. Hernandez told reporters at the time that he was framed by political opponents.

County records show that an additional property owned by the Hernandezes was sold to the city’s Housing Authority six years ago for $260,000. It is not clear whether Hernandez took part in the city’s decision to buy the land. The house was eventually replaced by a parking lot for the adjacent city park.

Hernandez also received a $20,000 loan from the city as part of an unusual

program developed by Rizzo in which he loaned public money to employees and elected officials. The state controller’s office described the loans as a gift of public funds and said they were probably illegal. Hernandez has repaid the loan.

When the City Hall salaries were revealed in July, Hernandez was initially defiant, accusing The Times of bending the facts to suit “its agenda” and praising Rizzo’s work. He has refused to talk with The Times.

But a week later, after Rizzo, his chief deputy and the police chief resigned amid a growing backlash in the community, Hernandez apologized and promised to finish his term without pay.

Still, the man who was once employed at a steel foundry, working his way up from janitor to manager, said he would not step down as the city’s mayor.

Under a cloud

A banner on the front of what once was called Oscar’s Korner Market & Carniceria proclaims that the place is under new management. The mayor’s longtime grocery store is now called Osito Meat Market.

Hernandez and his wife still own the business, but the mayor hasn’t been seen there in weeks and his wife moved to the Fresno area five years ago, after their separation. After skipping two council meetings, saying he was ill, Hernandez was escorted to the most recent meeting by police.

The mayor told police that he and his family have received death threats and fear for their safety.

At the council meeting, disgusted residents seized the opportunity to taunt Hernandez, asking him about his stay in jail.

“Are you ready to go back?” one resident yelled.

“Yeah, I’m ready,” the mayor replied sarcastically. If he was humiliated, he didn’t show it.

Enraged residents have rallied outside the grocery store, calling the mayor a coward and waving signs depicting him with devil horns. His eldest daughter, Christine Hernandez, said that people have threatened to burn down the market and that her 8-year-old son was nearly run over by an angry driver.

“They want to make my father look like he’s a monster, but in reality the monsters are those who are attacking and threatening us,” she said. “This experience has shown us who really are our friends and family — and we used to see this whole community as family.”

Maria Hernandez, who still spends time in Bell, has debated closing the family grocery store. Business has slackened since the scandal broke out, and the last couple of months have been emotionally draining.

She has already penned a letter she would post on its doors:

“We hope that you and your family will never go through something like this,” it reads in Spanish.

corina.knoll@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

Times staff writer Ruben Vives contributed to this report.


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