Bell lead­ers hauled off in cuffs

Eight are held in scan­dal the D.A. calls ‘cor­rup­tion on steroids’

Los Angeles Times - - Front Page - Jeff Got­tlieb, Ruben Vives and Jack Leonard

Eight cur­rent and for­mer Bell city lead­ers were ar­rested Tues­day on charges of mis­ap­pro­pri­at­ing more than $5.5 mil­lion from the small, work­ing-class com­mu­nity as pros­e­cu­tors ac­cused them of treat­ing the city’s cof­fers as their per­sonal piggy bank.

The charges fol­low months of na­tion­wide ou­trage and re­newed de­bate over pub­lic em­ployee com­pen­sa­tion since The Times re­ported in July that the city’s lead­ers were among the nation’s high­est paid mu­nic­i­pal of­fi­cials.

Among those charged was for­mer City Man­ager Robert Rizzo, who led the way with an an­nual salary and ben­e­fits pack­age of more than $1.5 mil­lion. Pros­e­cu­tors ac­cused him of il­le­gally writ­ing his own em­ploy­ment con­tracts and steer­ing nearly $1.9 mil­lion in unau­tho­rized city loans to him­self and oth­ers. He was booked into Los An­ge­les County Jail and was be­ing held on $3.2-mil­lion bail.

“This, need­less to say, is cor­rup­tion on steroids,” said Los An­ge­les County Dist. Atty. Steve Coo­ley in an­nounc­ing the charges.

Coo­ley de­scribed Rizzo as the “un­elected and un­ac­count­able czar” of Bell, ac­cus­ing him of go­ing to elab­o­rate lengths to keep his salary se­cret. Pros­e­cu­tors al­leged that Rizzo gave him­self huge pay raises with­out the City Coun­cil’s ap­proval.

“This was cal­cu­lated greed and theft ac­com­plished by de­ceit and se­crecy,” Coo­ley said.

Rizzo’s at­tor­ney, James W. Sper­tus, said the charges came as no sur­prise and were po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated by Coo­ley, who is run­ning for Cal­i­for­nia at­tor­ney gen­eral.

“The al­le­ga­tions are mis­taken,” Sper­tus said. “They are fac­tu­ally un­true in many read­ily prov­able ways.”

Coo­ley de­nied that his cam­paign played any part in the de­ci­sion to file charges.

At a news con­fer­ence, Coo­ley ac­cused City Coun­cil mem­bers of fail­ing to over­see Rizzo’s ac­tions, say­ing that they in­stead had col­lected more than $1.2 mil­lion in to­tal pay since 2006 for pre­sid­ing over city agency meet­ings that never oc­curred or lasted just a few

min­utes.

Many city res­i­dents greeted news of the charges with joy.

“Fi­nally the crooks are go­ing to suf­fer what the city suf­fered for many years,” said Carmen Bella, a long­time Bell ac­tivist.

About two dozen Bell res­i­dents gath­ered out­side City Hall to cel­e­brate. One man used a bull­horn to broad­cast the Queen rock song, “An­other One Bites the Dust,” while oth­ers laughed, cheered and ap­plauded.

But at least one res­i­dent won­dered what would hap­pen to his em­bat­tled city.

“Who’s go­ing to call the shots?” asked Has­san Mourad, 32. “That’s the most im­por­tant thing right now.”

The Los An­ge­les County Board of Su­per­vi­sors voted Tues­day to urge state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown to ask a judge to hand over day-to­day man­age­ment of the city to a court-ap­pointed of­fi­cial.

Last week, Brown filed a law­suit against the city that ac­cused Bell lead­ers of se­cretly plot­ting to en­rich them­selves and con­ceal their lu­cra­tive com­pen­sa­tion. The suit seeks to re­move three City Coun­cil mem­bers from of­fice and force city of­fi­cials to re­fund hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars in back salaries.

The only per­son named in Brown’s suit who was not ar­rested Tues­day was Bell’s for­mer po­lice chief, Randy Adams. Asked why Adams’ large salary did not lead to his ar­rest, Coo­ley said, “Be­ing paid ex­ces­sive salaries is not a crime … to il­le­gally ob­tain those salaries is a crime.”

Coo­ley said Tues­day morn­ing’s ar­rests were with­out in­ci­dent, ex­cept that district at­tor­ney’s in­ves­ti­ga­tors used a bat­ter­ing ram to en­ter Mayor Os­car Her­nan­dez’s home in Bell when he was slow to open the front door.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors led a hand­cuffed Rizzo, 56, from his Hunt­ing­ton Beach home about 10:15 a.m. Wear­ing a dark blue polo shirt and black slacks, Rizzo de­clined to com­ment to a re­porter about the charges.

The other city of­fi­cials ar­rested were coun­cil mem­bers Teresa Ja­cobo, Luis Ar­tiga and Ge­orge Mira­bal; for­mer coun­cil mem­bers Ge­orge Cole and Vic­tor Bello; and for­mer As­sis­tant City Man­ager An­gela Spac­cia.

Her­nan­dez’s at­tor­ney, Stan­ley L. Fried­man, said his client is in­no­cent. Attorneys for the oth­ers could not be reached for com­ment.

The de­fen­dants are ex­pected to ap­pear in court Wed­nes­day to en­ter pleas. Coo­ley said pros­e­cu­tors plan to ask a judge to en­sure that the ori­gin of any bail money does not come from il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity.

In­terim Bell City Man­ager Pe­dro Car­rillo re­leased a state­ment Tues­day say­ing that the charges marked a sad day for the city and showed that Rizzo and Spac­cia “were at the root of the can­cer that has af­flicted the City of Bell.”

In a tear­ful in­ter­view the day be­fore his ar­rest, Ar­tiga said he ac­cepted blame and put too much trust in Rizzo. Speak­ing at his of­fice at Bell Com­mu­nity Church, where he is pas­tor, Ar­tiga said he was de­lighted when he first learned how much his salary as a coun­cil­man was go­ing to be.

“I thought God had an­swered my prayers, but it was a trap from the devil,” he said.

Ac­cord­ing to the crim­i­nal com­plaint, a district at­tor­ney’s in­ves­ti­ga­tor in­ter­viewed Bello, the for­mer coun­cil­man, in March and learned that the city paid coun­cil mem­bers nearly $100,000 for the part-time jobs.

The district at­tor­ney’s of­fice sub­mit­ted a request to Rizzo for doc­u­ments show­ing pay for coun­cil mem­bers but re­ceived in­com­plete records, the crim­i­nal com­plaint said. Pros­e­cu­tors said they used grand jury sub­poe­nas to col­lect 60,000 pages of city records as part of their in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Rizzo and other top city of­fi­cials stepped down soon af­ter The Times re­ported their salaries.

As city of­fi­cials were reap­ing a fi­nan­cial bo­nanza, Bell prop­erty own­ers were pay­ing one of the high­est tax rates in the county, The Times found. A state au­dit con­cluded that the city il­le­gally over­charged res­i­dents and busi­nesses by $5.6 mil­lion in taxes and fees. And, The Times re­ported, Rizzo gave city loans to more than 50 city of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing him­self.

Rizzo also used nearly $95,000 in city funds to re­pay loans he took from his per­sonal re­tire­ment ac­count with­out au­tho­riza­tion from the City Coun­cil, ac­cord­ing to a draft re­port from the state con­troller.

Coo­ley com­pared the in­ves­ti­ga­tion to “peel­ing lay­ers of an onion. Each time a piece is pulled away, an­other piece is un­cov­ered.”

Bell’s woes be­came a sym­bol of govern­ment ex­cess at a time of in­creas­ing un­em­ploy­ment, bud­get deficits and elec­toral dis­en­chant­ment. Rizzo, who cut a larger-than-life fig­ure out­side Bell as well as in­side, stood at the cen­ter of the scan­dal.

His life­style in­cluded own­ing a sta­ble of thor­ough­breds, among them a geld­ing named Depenserdel’ar­gent — French for “spend money.” In the face of pub­lic crit­i­cism, Rizzo re­mained de­fi­ant, de­fend­ing his salary by cit­ing his years as city man­ager since 1993.

Amid wide­spread ou­trage, City Coun­cil mem­bers sig­nif­i­cantly slashed their pay. State law­mak­ers passed a raft of mea­sures aimed at curb­ing pay and pen­sion ex­cesses that now await Gov. Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger’s sig­na­ture.

Fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors are in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether the city vi­o­lated the civil rights of its pre­dom­i­nantly Latino im­mi­grant pop­u­la­tion with se­lec­tive en­force­ment of traf­fic laws and code vi­o­la­tions.

County pros­e­cu­tors said their in­ves­ti­ga­tion is con­tin­u­ing.

“We have fin­ished the first leg of what will likely be a marathon to try to re­store the in­tegrity of govern­ment in Bell,” said Jen­nifer Lentz Sny­der, as­sis­tant head deputy of the district at­tor­ney’s Pub­lic In­tegrity Di­vi­sion.

If con­victed, the cur­rent City Coun­cil mem­bers would be forced to give up their seats. Coo­ley said they could also face sub­stan­tial prison time.

Rizzo is charged with 53 crim­i­nal counts that in­clude mis­ap­pro­pri­at­ing pub­lic funds, con­flicts of in­ter­est and fal­si­fy­ing pub­lic records to keep his lu­cra­tive salary se­cret.

Those false doc­u­ment charges in­volve five con­tracts dated Septem­ber 2008, when Rizzo was mak­ing about $632,700 an­nu­ally. The con­tracts kept his salary the same but changed how he was paid. Rather than re­ceiv­ing his en­tire salary from his job as city man­ager, the new con­tracts meant that he would be paid from sev­eral city agen­cies.

The same month Rizzo cre­ated the con­tracts, Bell res­i­dent Roger Ramirez filed a request un­der the Cal­i­for­nia Pub­lic Records Act for the salaries of the city man­ager, the mayor and coun­cil mem­bers. The city gave Ramirez a memo pro­vid­ing false salaries, pros­e­cu­tors al­lege. The memo said Rizzo re­ceived $15,478 a month — or $185,736 a year — and the mayor and coun­cil mem­bers were paid $673 a month, about $8,000 a year. Coun­cil mem­bers ac­tu­ally made about $92,000 an­nu­ally.

Coo­ley faulted the City Coun­cil for fail­ing to over­see Rizzo, say­ing that the elected of­fi­cials “pro­vided no checks and no bal­ances.” Coun­cil mem­bers each had taken more than $100,000 in stipends since 2006 for sit­ting on city com­mis­sions that rarely met or met for just min­utes at a time, the crim­i­nal com­plaint said.

“They used the tax dol­lars col­lected from the hard­work­ing cit­i­zens of Bell as their own piggy bank,” Coo­ley said, “which they then looted at will.”

Rizzo is also charged with giv­ing unau­tho­rized city­funded loans to him­self and nu­mer­ous oth­ers, in­clud­ing Spac­cia, Her­nan­dez, Ar­tiga and for­mer po­lice chiefs Michael Chavez and An­dreas Probst.

Among other re­cip­i­ents was the Steel­work­ers Old Timers Foun­da­tion, a se­nior cit­i­zens group run by thenCoun­cil­man Cole, which re­ceived $72,000 in 2005.

Coo­ley said sev­eral fac­tors al­lowed cor­rup­tion to flour­ish in Bell, in­clud­ing a lack of civic par­tic­i­pa­tion by res­i­dents and lit­tle scru­tiny from the me­dia un­til the re­cent Times’ sto­ries.

“The elec­torates of these cities have to be in­volved if they truly care about their city,” he said. “That was not the case in this in­stance.”

Robert Lach­man

AR­REST: For­mer Bell City Man­ager Robert Rizzo is taken into cus­tody at his Hunt­ing­ton Beach home be­fore be­ing booked into L.A. County Jail. He had an an­nual salary and ben­e­fits pack­age of more than $1.5 mil­lion.

ROBERT RIZZO

AN­GELA SPAC­CIA

GE­ORGE MIRA­BAL

GE­ORGE COLE

OS­CAR HER­NAN­DEZ

LUIS AR­TIGA

VIC­TOR BELLO

TERESA JA­COBO

Bob Cham­ber­lin

NEWS CON­FER­ENCE: L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Coo­ley, right, ac­cuses Bell City Coun­cil mem­bers of fail­ing to over­see for­mer City Man­ager Robert Rizzo’s ac­tions, say­ing they’d in­stead col­lected more than $1.2 mil­lion in to­tal pay since 2006 for pre­sid­ing over city agency meet­ings that never oc­curred or lasted mere min­utes.

Robert Lach­man

CASE: Rizzo, cen­ter, il­le­gally wrote his own em­ploy­ment con­tracts and steered nearly $1.9 mil­lion in unau­tho­rized city loans to him­self and oth­ers, the D.A. says.

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