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Despite questions, Bell councilman insists he lives in the city

August 11, 2010 |  2:40 pm

A Bell city councilman says he and his family live in a small apartment behind the church where he is pastor -– even though he also owns a large home in Chino.

Luis A. Artiga has owned the Chino home for at least eight years, long before he became a councilman in 2009.‪ He insisted in an interview that he lives in Bell but regularly goes to his Chino home to maintain it.

On his voter registration affidavit, he says that he lives at Bell Community Church, where he is pastor. In addition to Artiga, his wife and four other relatives are also registered to vote at the Gage Avenue church, county records show.

But according to records at the San Bernardino Assessor’s Office, Luis and Miriam Artiga are receiving a homeowners’ exemption on the property in Chino.

Rhonda Pfeiffer of the assessor’s office said that to be eligible for the homeowners’ exemption, you must be living in the home as a primary residence at 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1 of the year.

"You cannot live at two places at the same time," she said.

The exemption reduces the assessed value by $7,000 and reduces the property tax bill, she said.

Over the last few weeks, The Times has seen Artiga at his apartment at the Bell church several times. But on Monday morning, The Times found him watering his lawn at his four-bedroom, ranch-style Chino home some 35 miles east of Bell.

Around noon, his sons spotted a Times reporter and photographer outside the house as they left the property. The reporter and photographer knocked on the door three times and got no reply.‪ A short time later, the sons returned and backed their cars up to the garage door with an SUV shielding the view of a BMW.‪

The 59-year-old Artiga, wearing a baseball cap, then came out of the garage and ducked into the BMW, which took off south at a high rate of speed as a Toyota Land Cruiser drove slowly behind. In an interview later that day, Artiga said he fled the Chino house because he didn’t want the media in the area. He also said he fears for his life because he and other council members have received death threats since the national attention over the high salaries in Bell.

He said he only goes there to check on the house, pick up the mail and water the plants.‪ "I don’t live in Chino," Artiga reiterated. "If I go there it's during the day to turn on the sprinkler. I don’t sleep there." He said his 5-year-old daughter goes to a Bell preschool.‪

Occasionally, Artiga said, he stays at the house for special occasions such as birthday parties. "And that has happened only twice in the past six to seven months," he said.

Artiga said his most recent stay at the Chino house was July 27. That day, two fellow council members announced that they would continue their terms without pay during a council session at which residents had demanded that he and three other council members resign.‪

"The Sheriff’s Department told us that night not to sleep at the [apartment]," Artiga said. "They told us to stay at the Chino house, so that time, yes, I was there," he said.‪

In recent years, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley has successfully prosecuted several politicians for registering to vote and getting elected in areas they were not officially residing in -- including Huntington Park, South Gate, West Covina and Vernon.‪

Prosecutors recently indicted Los Angeles Councilman Richard Alarcon and his wife on perjury and voter fraud for allegedly falsely claiming an address. Alarcon was also charged with filing a false declaration of candidacy. "They have to register to vote at their domicile and can only be elected in the city or district where they live," said David Demerjian, head of the District Attorney’s Public Integrity section.

"We basically get them for lying. They perjure themselves when they register to vote at an address that isn’t their true residence."

Demerjian said there is currently no investigation into Artiga’s residency status.

-- Richard Winton in Chino Hills and Ruben Vives in Bell

Photo: Bell Councilman Luis Artiga, at rear wearing a blue hat, leaves his Chino home Monday.

Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times