Once viewed as an American success story, the former mayor of Bell will face possible prison time when he is sentenced Thursday for his role in a massive corruption case in which city leaders paid themselves huge salaries and left the town teetering on the edge of insolvency.
Oscar Hernandez, a small-town grocer with a limited education, was arrested in 2010 when police knocked down his front door with a battering ram and booked him and other council members and city administrators.
Along with four former council colleagues, Hernandez was convicted last year for misappropriation of public funds, a crime that had its roots in the enormous salaries council members were drawing for serving on boards and commissions that rarely, if ever, met.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Sean Hassett has asked the court to send Hernandez to prison for four years and order him to pay nearly a quarter of a million dollars in restitution.
Three other former council members have already been sentenced, drawing both light and tough punishments.
Former Councilman George Cole, an ex-steelworker who’d been politically active in southeast Los Angeles for decades, was given home confinement. Teresa Jacobo, a realtor, was given two years in prison.
Hernandez’s attorney said his client deserves leniency because he quickly cooperated with authorities after his arrest and was remorseful.
The former mayor, defense lawyer Stanley Friedman said, is a man “embarrassed to the core and disappointed in himself.”
During his trial, Hernandez was described as a simple man with little formal education, someone who struggled with written English and needed the help of colleagues to understand basic city documents.
But Hassett, in a sentencing memo to the court, said Hernandez was a corrupt politician who was willing to accept a huge paycheck, even as city employees were losing their jobs.
“Instead of serving the public, he abused their trust, stole their money and left the city deeply in debt,” Hassett wrote in his memo.
The scandal, which broke nearly four years ago, had sweeping implications for governments across California, prompting legislation that requires salaries to be made public and sparking audits of city spending elsewhere.
Two ranking administrators in the city, Robert Rizzo and Angela Spaccia, were both sentenced earlier this year to lengthy prison terms.