Bell, Calif., City Leaders Arrested in Salary Scandal

Officials arrested on corruption charges that may widen to other cities.

September 21, 2010, 1:51 PM

Sept. 21, 2010— -- Los Angeles prosecutors filed charges today against eight leaders the Bell, Calif., city government, whose outsized salaries created a scandal that prompted national outrage.

In a police sweep this morning, former Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo, whose exorbitant salary sparked the furor that led to the investigations of the city, was arrested, along with former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia.

The others included Mayor Oscar Hernandez, Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo, council members George Mirabal and Luis Artiga, and former council members George Cole and Victor Bello.

The officials are accused of misappropriating at least $5.5 million. "They used tax dollars as their own piggy bank, which they then looted at will," Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley alleged today at a news conference.

Rizzo is charged with 53 counts, including allegations that, beginning in 2008, he wrote his own employment contracts that were never approved by the City Council. Rizzo is also accused of giving nearly $1.9 million in unauthorized loans to himself, Spaccia, Artiga, Hernandez and dozens of others.

"This, needless to say, is corruption on steroids," Cooley said of the allegations.

In a July open letter, however, Mayor Hernandez attacked the Los Angeles Times for reporting the story and stood by Rizzo's salary.

"Unlike the skewed view of the facts, the Los Angeles Times presented to advance the paper's own agenda, a look at the big picture of city compensation shows that salaries of the city manager and other top city staff have been in line with similar positions over the period of their tenure," Hernandez said in the letter.

But the prosecutor said today that Rizzo was the leader of the group, calling him "an unelected czar."

"This was calculated greed accomplished by theft and secrecy," Cooley alleged.

Cooley said police had to use a battering ram on the door of one of the arrested officials. The detained officials were booked into county facilities and will be kept away from other inmates for their protection, according to the Associated Press.

Rizzo, who earned $787,637 -- nearly twice President Obama's salary -- was the highest paid municipal employee in the state. But he was not alone in allegedly pocketing large paychecks.

Spaccia, the assistant city manager, earned $376,288 a year. Four out of the five council members earned more than $100,000 a year for part-time work.

Investigation to Include Other Cities

Cooley alleged that council members illegally gamed the system to receive ridiculous salaries for doing no work. "Getting paid hundreds of dollars for bogus meetings that lasted only minutes at a time -- or not at all -- is a fraud, plain and simple," he said in a prepared statement.

Bell, a city of less than 40,000 people, is located 14 miles south of Los Angeles. The average citizens earns around $28,000 a year and 2008 census data shows 17 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

About two dozen residents gathered outside City Hall upon hearing of the arrests. The mood was festive. The song, "Hit the Road, Jack," could be heard on a small radio.

Christina Garcia, a member of the Bell Association to Stop the Abuse, called the arrests "a victory for the community."

"We've seen a lot of the suffering and damages that Rizzo and his regime have cost, you know, among the community but, you know, it's also just the first step; we have many more to go," she said.

Garcia said the group would pressure the arrested officials to resign.

The Los Angeles County prosecutor had suggested in July that the council could be investigated for inappropriately approving enormous salaries.

Marcello Ceja, another resident, called this "the happiest day in Bell."

"They became criminals in this city hall and now they are going to pay the price for it," Ceja said.

California Attorney General Jerry Brown filed a lawsuit against current and former Bell city leaders last week, demanding that their pay contracts be nullified and that they pay back some of their salaries and pension benefits. Artiga was not one of those named in the lawsuit and he said he was working with investigators.

Brown, the Democratic candidate for governor, also said he was broadening his investigation of Bell and nearby cities into a statewide probe that would target "local and other government agencies" paying annual salaries of more than $300,000 and pensions greater than $200,000.

The full audit by state Controller John Chiang's office has previously found that Bell illegally overtaxed residents and businesses by $5.6 million. In addition to the retirement funds, Rizzo received two city loans of $80,000, officials said.

The officials arrested today are expected to be arraigned Wednesday. The prosecutor is seeking more than $3.2 million for Rizzo. He is requesting bail for the others ranging from $377,500 to $130,000.

Barbara Garcia and The Associated Press contributed to this report