- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The mayor and the city manager of the Los Angeles suburb of Bell, Calif., were charged Tuesday along with six other city officials in an investigation by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office into bloated salaries that the public servants had secured for themselves.

Bell’s former city manager, Robert Rizzo, was charged with 53 counts of misappropriation of public funds and conflict of interest in a case that District Attorney Steve Cooley called “corruption on steroids.”

Mr. Rizzo, 56, was being paid $800,000 annually in salary and other compensation as chief administrative officer in Bell, a largely immigrant, 36,600 population, 2-square-mile city about 12 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

The salary scandal has prompted national outrage and stunned residents of the city, where the median household income is about $40,000 and where one in six residents lives below the poverty line.

Mr. Cooley, standing beside a poster with the mug shots of the eight city officials, told reporters at a news conference that the defendants had misappropriated about $5.5 million in taxpayer money. The news conference was held shortly after law enforcement authorities had swept through Bell and several adjoining communities to arrest the eight suspects.

Authorities also took into custody former Mayor Oscar Hernandez, former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia, 52; Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo, 52; council members George Mirabal, 60, and Luis Artiga, 49; and former council members George Cole, 60, and Victor Bello, 51.

Ms. Spaccia was paid $376,288 a year. Four of the five council members paid themselves nearly $100,000 a year for their part-time service.

“We are alleging they used the tax dollars collected from the hardworking citizens of Bell as their own piggy bank, which they looted at will,” said Mr. Cooley, a Republican who is running for state attorney general.

Mr. Cooley said records showed that, starting in 2006, council members were paid nearly $8,000 a month for meetings on four boards that never took place or lasted just a few minutes.

Prosecutors say Mr. Rizzo wrote his own employment contracts that were never approved by the City Council. He also gave nearly $1.9 million in unauthorized loans to himself, Ms. Spaccia, Mr. Artiga, Mr. Hernandez and dozens of others.

Former Police Chief Randy Adams, who was making $457,000 a year, was not arrested.

“Being paid excessive salaries is not a crime,” Mr. Cooley said. “Illegally obtaining those salaries is a crime.”

Mr. Cooley said the arrests were made peacefully, though police used a battering ram at Mr. Hernandez’s house.

The eight are scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday.

The salary scandal has been the subject of multiple and sometimes overlapping investigations since the salary revelations surfaced in July.

California Attorney General Jerry Brown, a Democrat who is running for governor, filed a civil lawsuit last week against former and current Bell city officials. Mr. Brown’s lawsuit asks the court to appoint a receiver and seeks the return of any excessive compensation and a reduction in city officials’ pension benefits.

Mr. Rizzo, Mr. Adams and Ms. Spaccia resigned after reports of their salaries emerged, and the council members voted to reduce their pay to about $8,000 annually after the public outcry. Citizen-led recall efforts have been initiated against the four council members.

Earlier this month, the Bell City Council unanimously voted to authorize their city attorney to conduct his own investigation into the scandal.

Interim City Manager Pedro Carillo called it “a sad day for Bell.”

“Given the sheer volume of charges levied against former Bell Chief Administrative Officer Robert Rizzo and former Assistant CAO Angela Spaccia by the district attorney, it is clear that Rizzo and Spaccia were at the root of the cancer that has afflicted the city of Bell,” Mr. Carillo said.

“It is a sad day for Bell that four current and two former members of the council also have been arrested. I am prepared to double down our efforts to continue to restore order, establish good government reforms, and to ensure that Bell is providing needed services to its residents,” he said.

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