Bell councilman an accidental hero by staying clear of corruption scandal
Sitting in his living room around midnight, the man who may be Bell’s last honest politician — or the most charmed — plays back voice mails on his cellphone.
FOR THE RECORD
Bell councilman: In the Oct. 13 Section A, a profile of Lorenzo Velez, the only Bell City Council member not charged with a crime, described Bell as “a city dominated by blue-color Mexican immigrants like himself.” It should have said “blue-collar.”
“Lorenzo, this is George, please give me a call, uh, I’d like to talk to you about a few things....”
“It’s urgent,” a woman’s voice says in the background. “Yeah, it’s pretty urgent,” the man says.
The voices were of a powerful former councilman and of Lorenzo Velez’s City Council colleagues, who were desperate to talk to him after news broke about their high salaries. Just a few months later, all except Velez would be handcuffed and hauled off to jail in a massive public corruption case centered on the huge payments they and other top city officials had received.
Velez is the only Bell council member not charged with a crime — a local hero all because he didn’t collect the nearly $100,000 annual salary like his colleagues.
It’s unclear exactly why. He was appointed to the council last year when another council member — who was among the eight former and current officials charged — unexpectedly resigned. That councilman, Victor Bello, continued to receive his big salary even after he stepped down while Velez made a little over $8,000 a year.
For nearly a year, Velez had no idea how much his colleagues were earning. He found out only in June, when The Times began publishing articles about high salaries in Bell that uncovered a scandal that had made the town a national watchword for governmental greed.
The publicity brought investigations, and Velez quickly fielded nervous calls from other council members. “Hola, Lorenzo, this is Teresa calling you,” Councilwoman Teresa Jacobo said in one voice mail. “Please give me a little call. It’s very urgent.”
At the same time, the public esteem for Velez, a heavy equipment operator for the city of Los Angeles, grew in stature as that for his colleagues shrank.
Brimming with white-hot anger, hundreds of residents jammed into council meetings and verbally lanced other council members but gave Velez a pass. Empowered, he at times has eagerly fanned the crowd’s anger, wheeling against other city administrators and demanding answers for the community.
The audience cheered him. They pushed him forward.
But Velez knows he owes this acclaim in large part to serendipity. He never got the big salary because it was never offered to him — for reasons that remain unclear.
One of the accused council members described his own $100,000 salary as “a miracle from God.”
For Velez, God worked differently — sparing him from temptation. “I guess I’m a religious person. I believe in the Lord,” he said. “I believe the Lord was protecting me. The Lord utilized me for this moment.”
Velez is often asked whether he would have taken the $100,000 salary if it had been offered. He insists he would not have. But he’s the first to say he feels fortunate not to have faced the choice.
“Yes, you can call it luck,” he said. “You know, I call it a blessing, to tell you the truth.”
Amid the cheers and pats on the back, Velez marvels at the long road that brought him to Bell City Hall.
He grew up poor in Ciudad Juarez in northern Mexico. His father died when he was 9. He said his mother couldn’t afford to pay the one peso the school asked children to bring to pay for upkeep.
He arrived in the United States on a green card as an 18-year-old and got a job as a trucker before finding a job with the city of L.A., eventually making $72,000 a year operating heavy equipment.
He and his family settled in Bell, a city dominated by blue-color Mexican immigrants like himself. He got involved in Neighborhood Watch and led a youth baseball league.
His first brush with city politics came last year, when Bello resigned from office and friends began urging Velez to seek the vacant seat.
Velez had one advantage going in: He was friendly with George Cole, a former council member who was considered a political godfather and fixer not only in Bell but the cities of southeast Los Angeles County.
Then, in October 2009, Mayor Oscar Hernandez and Councilman Luis Artiga arrived at his doorstep with the big news — he had gotten the appointment.
What he didn’t know when he took office were the circumstances under which his predecessor, Bello, had stepped down.
Bello, 51, said he had quit because he was on the brink of mental collapse. He said he had become increasingly anxious about the way the city was being run and worried about rampant corruption.
Before he left office, Bello said, he had begun to ask a lot of questions and voted against the other council members. He also religiously kept copies of city documents in boxes and had reached out to investigators from the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office as well as the FBI.
Documents reviewed by The Times show Bello filed a complaint with the district attorney before leaving office. In a recent interview, he pulled off the cover of a shoe box and showed his store of medications — Cozaar for high blood pressure; Xanax for anxiety; Zoloft for depression.
But when Bello resigned to take a job at a local food bank, he didn’t give up his salary. The city continued to pay him as before, deciding that Velez would earn a fraction of the other council members.
Velez said he just assumed all council members received about $670 a month like he did.
When the salary scandal finally broke this summer, Velez said, he confronted City Administrator Robert Rizzo and his council colleagues.
“I went in, and I asked, ‘Are you guys really making these salaries?’ ” Velez said. “Rizzo said, ‘What’s wrong with that? They earn it. They work hard for their money.’ ”
Velez said Rizzo told him he got paid far less because he had been appointed, not elected. But he thinks maybe he dodged the $100,000 salary because the money went to Bello instead.
“Thank God for that,” he said.
Velez said he knows some people wonder whether he might have eventually been lured into going along with the others. But Velez said that from the beginning, he was his own man. In fact, Velez said, he began to feel that although he was due to run in the March elections on a slate with Councilman George Mirabal and Artiga, his political career could be a short one.
He said Hernandez once asked him to deny that he had passed out a flier attacking a political rival. Velez said he refused to do that and warned the mayor, “Let that be the last time you ask me to lie for you.” Hernandez could not be reached for comment.
Despite his attempts to distance himself from the rest of the council, some residentsremain wary.
Joe Carmona, 62, said he couldn’t totally trust Velez because of who appointed him. “I have strong reservations about him,” Carmona said. “He looks very sincere, he looks very concerned, he looks very honest. But looks aren’t everything.”
As for his colleagues, “Constantly, constantly, constantly, they were calling me,” in the days after the scandal became public, Velez said. “They were trying to strategize, to bring me in. I wouldn’t do it.”
The night before the arrests, Artiga, the pastor of a small community church, wept and expressed regret for everything, Velez said. The high salaries, that miracle from God, he said, had really been “a trap from the devil.”
“He said, ‘You know Lorenzo, I know the Lord has got something for me,’ ” Velez recalled. “He opened his wallet, and in his wallet he had his driver’s license and nothing else. In case he got arrested, so he could at least have his ID with him.”
Velez said Mirabal also wept and expressed that he was glad his father had not lived to see this.
The next morning, when Artiga, Bello, Cole, Hernandez, Jacobo, Mirabal, Rizzo and former Assistant City Administrator Angela Spaccia were arrested, Velez was called home by his daughter, Sonia, and watched the aftermath on TV.
“I’d be a liar if I didn’t say I felt good when I saw Rizzo being arrested,” he said. “I thought, ‘Wow, man, there really is justice in the world.’ ”
The future of Bell — and Velez — remains uncertain. California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown has proposed putting Bell in receivership, and the city faces financial problems stemming from illegally collected taxes it must now refund.
Velez said people close to him have told him that he should get out of politics before it’s too late.
“Even our pastor sent me a word the other day saying, ‘You tell Lorenzo that he’s done, to get out,’ ” Velez said with a laugh. “He said, ‘Politics are very corrupt. Tell him to get out of there.’ ”
Velez, however, said he wants to stay until order returns to Bell.
“I remember when I got that very first letter that said ‘Honorable Councilman Lorenzo Velez,’ ” he said. “It was a very emotional moment for me when I read that. I wasn’t going to jeopardize that. I wasn’t going to let anyone corrupt me.”