For nearly a decade, plumbers were among individuals targeted by the city of Bell for alleged code violations that resulted in vehicles being towed and arbitrary fines being levied, the Los Angeles Times has found.
Reporters looked at hundreds of cases in which documents were created to look like official court documents claiming a payment was being made to the city as part of a “civil compromise.” However, most of the cases do not appear to have gone before a judge, as is the common practice. A review of 164 cases found that only three were filed with a court, and they all were dismissed.
Plumber Frank Santiago was among those whose case was reviewed. In 2008, Santiago went to the home of a Bell resident to check out a leaking kitchen pipe. After finding nothing wrong, Santiago was backing out of the driveway when a code enforcement officer blocked him in with his vehicle and wanted to know if he had a license to practice plumbing in Bell.
Santiago, who did not have the required license, told the officer he hadn’t even taken out any of his tools, but he was cited and his van was impounded as evidence. When Santiago and a supervisor went to City Hall the next day to settle the matter, they were told they must buy licenses for all 10 vehicles in the company fleet. They ended up paying $2,200 in fines and fees, the newspaper reported.
“They were just trying to get money one way or another,” Santiago told the newspaper. “What they did wasn’t right.”
The Times reported that this practice took place for eight years until reporters inquired about it. Interim City Administrative Officer Pedro Carrillo, who said he had been unaware of what the officers were doing, said it was no longer occurring and that officers were no longer impounding vehicles.
Legal experts consulted by the Times said the city’s behavior was questionable on at least two fronts: the lack of judicial review of the “settlements” and the seizure of property for investigations that apparently never occurred.
Other cases reviewed by the reporters involved a husband and wife being fined for distributing handbills, a person selling strawberries and a homeless man picking up bottles.
The small city in Los Angeles County has faced a tremendous amount of public scrutiny for the high salaries its officials had been getting paid, and the code enforcement program is seen as an example of efforts to collect money to raise revenue. Bell is among the county’s poorest cities.
Eric Eggena, the former city prosecutor and head of code enforcement, oversaw the citations, impounds and settlements, according to records obtained by the Times. When he was fired in October, his annual salary was $421,402.