Federal probe targets possible civil rights violations in Bell

The U.S. Justice Department has launched an investigation into possible civil rights violations in Bell, focusing in part on allegations that the city improperly used towing fees and other city fines to generate revenues.

Law enforcement sources told The Times that the investigation is looking at whether Bell officials violated the civil rights of Latino residents by aggressively towing cars and charging residents exorbitant fees to get their vehicles back.

Federal officials are also looking into complaints about other ways the city tried to boost revenues, including through aggressive code enforcement, the sources said.

The Times reported earlier this week that some Bell police officers said top brass gave them what amounted to a daily quota to find cars to tow, with some saying that their jobs were at risk if they didn’t get enough cars towed. Bell charges $300 for unlicensed motorists to retrieve their cars, triple what Los Angeles County and neighboring cities charge.

The federal probe comes as both the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office and California attorney general are investigating high salaries for Bell officials as well as allegations of voter fraud and questionable financial transactions. The state controller has also discovered two instances in which Bell illegally overcharged property owners in taxes.

An FBI agent with the agency’s public corruption squad and a federal prosecutor have interviewed at least two members of the Bell Police Department, the sources said, who spoke on the condition that they not be named because the investigation is ongoing. One of the sources said that if officials find wrongdoing, the goal would be to punish those responsible and not to establish federal oversight overBell or the Bell Police Department.

The city budget shows that Bell was generating increased revenue from various fees and taxes, most notably from vehicle impound charges. One of the highest increases in revenue came from impound fees. Records show the city made more than $800,000 from those fees last year.

Some Bell residents have complained that police officers have pulled over motorists and towed their vehicles if the drivers didn’t have licenses. Bell has a large immigrant population, as well as many illegal immigrants.

Bell officials have denied illegally ticketing vehicles or having any type of towing quota.

But some Bell police officers told The Times that the Police Department focused much energy on impounding cars. One officer said patrol officers spent their shifts pulling over drivers for small infractions in the hope that they would be unlicensed. Although officers didn’t look exclusively for immigrants, it was clear that the majority turned out to be illegal immigrants, Officer Kurt Owens said. Undocumented immigrants cannot obtain driver’s licenses.

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

In addition to the towing issues, Bell residents have also complained about aggressive code enforcement officers who demand high fees for city permits and business licenses.

Ezzat Faltas said that last year, Bell code enforcement officials came to his catering business, giving tickets to employees parked in his own private lot. Faltas said at least 20 workers got tickets, with the officers saying they lacked permits to park in the private lot.

Faltas told The Times that he protested to City Hall, to no avail. He and his brother, who owns the business, ended up paying some of the tickets.

“Some of the cars did not get tickets, maybe because they ran out of tickets to hand out,” Faltas said. “The employees were angry at us. They would ask ‘how can we park on private property and get a ticket?’ ”

He said he was outraged when The Times reported that top city leaders were among the highest paid in the state and that the city was generating increasingly large revenues from parking violations.

“I was really shocked,” Faltas said. “I didn’t know they were making this kind of money, but on the other hand they had been increasing everything — business licenses and taxes. They needed more money.”

Other business owners have complained about what they consider excessive city charges.

Real estate broker Chris Foster, owner of Foster Realty Group, said he stopped marketing properties in Bell after paying what he said were exorbitant fees for property inspections. Bell charges $500 for property inspections that are required before properties can be sold — compared to $100 in other cities he works in.