- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 22, 2010

LOS ANGELES (AP) | The scandal-plagued city of Bell mismanaged at least $50 million in bond money, levied illegal taxes and paid exorbitant salaries to its leaders, according to a state audit released Wednesday.

The audit was made public a day after eight current and former officials of the blue-collar Los Angeles suburb were arrested on misappropriation of public funds and other charges.

The officials, wearing handcuffs and jail clothing, appeared before a judge Wednesday but did not enter pleas. Their arraignments were postponed until Oct. 21.

Three were given permission to post bail immediately, but five others, including Mayor Oscar Hernandez and former City Manager Robert Rizzo, were ordered to appear before another judgeto prove they would not use looted city funds to get out of jail.

Mr. Rizzo was singled out for criticism in the state controller’s audit, which said he had total control of city funds and used some of the money to inflate his salary and pay off personal loans.

He was making nearly $800,000 a year when he resigned earlier this year, almost twice as much as President Obama.

“Our audit found the city had almost no accounting controls, no checks or balances, and the general fund was run like a petty cash drawer,” state Controller John Chiang said. “The city’s purse strings were tied to only one individual, resulting in a perfect breeding ground for fraudulent, wasteful spending.”

The findings “are shocking and detail actions that are reprehensible beyond words,” said Bell Interim City Manager Pedro Carrillo, who requested the state audit in July.

Others arrested Tuesday were former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia; Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo; council members George Mirabal and Luis Artiga and former council members Victor Bello and George Cole.

Prosecutors alleged that the wrongdoing by city leaders went unchecked for years because anyone who could have exposed the scheme was reaping benefits.

As Bell’s chief administrative officer, Mr. Rizzo was accused of illegally lending city money to himself, his assistant, City Council members, members of the police force from the upper ranks down to regular officers, and an array of city workers ranging from management analysts to a recreation attendant who borrowed $1,500.

“The loans which are the basis of these charges were not publicly approved and the crimes were committed by persons who would otherwise have been responsible for reporting such conduct,” the felony complaint stated.

The eight suspects were charged with misappropriating $5.5 million in public funds. However, the audit questioned well over $65 million in city expenses.

Among the audit’s other findings:

  • The city levied more than $5.6 million in improper sewer, property and business license taxes.
  • Exorbitant salaries were approved for city leaders without required performance reviews. In the past year alone, the city spent more than $5.8 million on compensation for the mayor, City Council members and six top administrators.
  • The city mismanaged $50 million in bond funds approved by voters in 2003. The city issued the funds without any plan to use the money or any apparent need for the money.