California campaign watchdog investigates Bell police union

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The state Fair Political Practices Commission is investigating whether the Bell police union violated state law in the March election, when voters in the scandal-battered town swept the last remaining City Council members out of office.

The state panel is examining whether the Bell Police Officers Assn. distributed campaign literature showing officers in uniform, a violation of state law.

The commission could fine the union as much as $5,000 for each offense. In rare instances, it has filed suit to get up to three times the amount spent on improper campaigning.


The city has completed its own investigation, and Pedro Carrillo, the interim chief administrative officer, could discipline the officers. Carrillo said it was a personnel matter and could not say what the investigation revealed.

The investigations come at a crucial time for Bell’s Police Department, which has been fighting to remain intact in a city threatened with insolvency. Bell is facing a $3.5-million to $5-million deficit — around one-third of its general fund — unless it makes deep budget cuts in the coming fiscal year.

The largest portion of the city’s budget goes to police, and replacing the department with Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies has been suggested as a way to eliminate much of the deficit.

For many voters, the March ballot was not only a chance to punish the city’s former leaders for the political corruption scandal that enveloped Bell, but also a referendum on whether to retain the Police Department. The 45 Police Department employees looked at the election as a fight for their jobs.

The Bell Police Officers Assn. has been a high-profile political player in the city in recent months, helping fund the Bell Assn. to Stop the Abuse, the influential activist group that led the recall of council members. BASTA’s Facebook page identifies it as a coalition of Bell residents and the police union.

Three BASTA members who quit the group to run for office were elected to the five-person council. All were endorsed by police.


The Fair Political Practices Commission’s move is the latest investigation in the city of about 40,000, a place that has become synonymous nationally with corruption. At least eight federal, state and county agencies have launched investigations, and eight former officials — including six former council members — have been charged with corruption.

Police officers campaigning in uniform became an issue during the last election. Carrillo said he could not discuss the city’s investigation because it is a personnel matter.

Jamie Casso, Bell’s interim city attorney, wrote two letters to the police union during the campaign saying that it was against department policy for uniformed officers to be used in campaign literature.

At the time, Leo Briones, political consultant for the police officers, said officers who ignored the city’s directive were like “Martin Luther King saying no to Jim Crow.”

Police Capt. Steve Finklestein, who is not a union member, said this week that when he learned that officers were being photographed, he told them that some of his police academy classmates “took photos in uniform with a candidate and got themselves in trouble.”

Briones said that any literature with officers in uniform resulted from his designer sending the printer the wrong file. “Ultimately it was my fault,” he said.


Kurt Owens, vice president of the police union, said the membership relied on Briones: “Most of the guys are fairly naive and don’t really know the rules,” he said.

Hilda Delgado, who was a political consultant to the Justice for Bell slate of council candidates, said her group filed a complaint with the Los Angeles County district attorney during the campaign. The complaint went much further than just officers being photographed in uniform and charged police with campaigning in uniform and intimidating campaign workers.

Delgado said Briones, a veteran campaign consultant, should have known better than to put out that type of campaign material.

“I’m surprised,” Delgado said, “that something so basic and him being in the game for such a long time — he thought he could get away with this.”