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Justice Department launches probe of Bell towing, city fees

September 9, 2010 |  5:06 pm


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 officerssaid 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 meet that quota.

 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 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 over Bell or the Bell Police Department.

 In addition to the towing issues, Bell residents have complained about aggressive code enforcement officers who demand high fees for city permits and business licenses. The city budget shows that Bell was generating increased revenue from various fees and taxes, mostly 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.

-- Richard Winton, Paloma Esquivel and Ruben Vives