Bell’s trou­bles aid can­di­dates

Three could ben­e­fit from mea­sures taken in re­sponse to the cor­rup­tion scan­dal.

Los Angeles Times - - Late Extra - Phil Willon Times staff writer Jack Leonard con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Statewide nom­i­nees bask in their law-and-or­der im­age amid the city’s salary scan­dal.

With less than six weeks un­til elec­tion day, the cor­rup­tion scan­dal en­velop­ing the tiny South­ern Cal­i­for­nia city of Bell has be­come the head­line-grab­bing cause cele­bre for politi­cians run­ning statewide.

In the last two weeks, the can­di­dates have de­scended on Bell.

Lt. Gov. Abel Mal­don­ado, the Repub­li­can ap­pointed to the post in April who hopes to win the job full time, held a quasi-po­lit­i­cal pep rally in front of City Hall to sign a new law re­fund­ing to res­i­dents mil­lions in il­le­gal taxes col­lected by the city.

Days later, the Demo­cratic gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date, Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, nabbed the spot­light by fil­ing a civil ac­tion to boot three Bell City Coun­cil mem­bers from of­fice and force city of­fi­cials to pay back a slice of their as­tro­nom­i­cal salaries.

But the biggest splash has gone to Los An­ge­les County Dist. Atty. Steve Coo­ley, the GOP nom­i­nee for at­tor­ney gen­eral. On Tues­day, Coo­ley stood be­fore a horde of tele­vi­sion news cam­eras to an­nounce that he had filed crim­i­nal charges against eight cur­rent and for­mer Bell city lead­ers for al­legedly si­phon­ing away mil­lions of dol­lars from the small, heav­ily Latino com­mu­nity.

“Sgt. Fri­day couldn’t have looked more law and or­der,” said Al­lan Hof­fen­blum, whose Cal­i­for­nia Tar­get Book hand­i­caps and an­a­lyzes Cal­i­for­nia po­lit­i­cal races. “It just makes him look qual­i­fied for the job. And it’s aw­fully hard for a down-bal­lot can­di­date to get that sort of pub­lic­ity this close to an elec­tion.”

The at­tor­ney for Robert Rizzo, the for­mer Bell city ad­min­is­tra­tor and a ben­e­fi­ciary of the al­leged fi­nan­cial malfea­sance, ac­cused Coo­ley of us­ing the Bell in­ves­ti­ga­tion to gain an edge over his Demo­cratic ri­val in the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s race, San Fran­cisco Dist. Atty. Ka­mala Har­ris. Coo­ley de­nied that the in­quiry or tim­ing of the charges, just weeks from the Nov. 2 elec­tion, had any­thing to do with the elec­tion.

Hop­ing to take the shine off Coo­ley’s moment, the Har­ris cam­paign Wed­nes­day again crit­i­cized Coo­ley for fail­ing to un­cover the Bell scan­dal sooner.

Har­ris cam­paign spokesman Brian Brokaw said re­ports show that Coo­ley’s of­fice re­ceived cred­i­ble tips about pos­si­ble wrong­do­ing in Bell in early 2009 but failed to take them se­ri­ously un­til the Los An­ge­les Times in July re­vealed the huge salaries and other ques­tion­able city spend­ing. (Coo­ley has de­nied that con­tention.)

“It’s bet­ter late than never, but it’s be­com­ing very clear that Steve Coo­ley ig­nored re­peated com­plaints about cor­rup­tion in Bell for many months, per­haps years, and he only be­gan this in­ves­ti­ga­tion in the midst of his race for at­tor­ney gen­eral,” Brokaw said.

Coo­ley also has been put on the de­fen­sive about his long ac­quain­tance with for­mer Bell Po­lice Chief Randy Adams, who was not charged in the crim­i­nal com­plaint. Adams re­signed af­ter it was re­vealed that he earned a salary of $457,000, about 50% more than Los An­ge­les Po­lice Chief Char­lie Beck.

“I’m ac­quainted with the for­mer po­lice chief.... He was not charged be­cause there was no ev­i­dence to charge him. I would charge my mother if I had ev­i­dence,” Coo­ley said at Tues­day’s new con­fer­ence. “Be­ing paid ex­ces­sive salaries is not a crime.... To il­le­gally ob­tain those salaries is a crime.”

Al­though some vot­ers may be skep­ti­cal of Coo­ley’s mo­tives, most would prob­a­bly be grate­ful, said Jaime Re­gal­ado, di­rec­tor of the Ed­mund G. “Pat” Brown In­sti­tute of Pub­lic Af­fairs at Cal State L.A.

“Peo­ple may say, ‘Yeah, sure there may be some pol­i­tics be­hind it, but as far as I’m concerned I’m glad they’re do­ing it,’ ” Re­gal­ado said.

The crack­down in Bell also has re­ceived ex­ten­sive cov­er­age in the Span­ish-lan­guage me­dia and should res­onate among vot­ers in blue-col­lar Latino com­mu­ni­ties who of­ten feel ne­glected in terms of both govern­ment ser­vices and the jus­tice sys­tem, he said.

Mal­don­ado took ad­van­tage of that cov­er­age when, through the for­tune of good tim­ing, he was serv­ing as act­ing gover­nor while Gov. Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger was in Asia. Mal­don­ado came to Bell last week to sign leg­is­la­tion to re­fund ill-got­ten tax money col­lected by Bell’s lead­ers — and used the op­por­tu­nity to bash the city lead­er­ship.

Cal­i­for­nia’s Latino vot­ers are crit­i­cal of Mal­don­ado in his race against Demo­crat Gavin New­som be­cause most statewide Repub­li­can can­di­dates have tra­di­tion­ally re­ceived scant sup­port from them, said Repub­li­can po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant Mike Madrid in Sacra­mento.

“Clearly, the more in­roads he makes to Latino vot­ers, the more he’s go­ing to make a dent in New­som’s base,” Madrid said. “In a race like the lieu­tenant gover­nor’s race, there are very few op­por­tu­ni­ties to make news.... He has to take ad­van­tage of it.”

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