Sep 22, 2010 9:53 PM by Alison Haynes
LOS ANGELES (AP) - Eight current and former officials of the
city of Bell appeared in shackles before judges Wednesday in a
corruption case prosecutors said was so ingrained in the
blue-collar suburb that almost anyone who could have blown the
whistle was benefiting from it.
Former city manager Robert Rizzo was accused of being at the
center of the scandal that went unchecked for years while he
allegedly lent city money to himself, his assistant, City Council
members, members of the police force and an array of city workers
that included 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,"
according to a felony complaint charging the suspects with
misappropriation of public funds and other charges.
Rizzo also was singled out in a state controller's audit that
said city officials mismanaged more than $50 million in bond money,
levied illegal taxes and paid exorbitant salaries to leaders.
Rizzo was being paid nearly $800,000 a year when he resigned
earlier this year and had total control of city funds, the audit
"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 in a statement. "The
city's purse-strings were tied to only one individual, resulting in
a perfect breeding ground for fraudulent, wasteful spending."
The findings were "shocking and detail actions that are
reprehensible beyond words," said Bell interim city manager Pedro
Carrillo, who requested the state audit in July.
He called the audit an invaluable tool to correct the problems
and to establish reforms to prevent more abuse in the city where
one in six residents live in poverty.
All eight defendants made their first court appearances on
Wednesday but gained little in their appeals to have high bail
amounts slashed. Rizzo's bail was reduced to $2 million, down from
the $3.2 million prosecutors had originally requested, but far more
than the $100,000 his attorney had sought.
"The notice of the charges in this case allege very serious
criminal activity," Superior Court Judge Michael E. Pastor said,
adding it was not unreasonable to assume Rizzo and the others might
flee if high bail amounts weren't required.
Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Lentz Snyder, who argued for
keeping the bail amounts high, said all eight officials face
lengthy prison terms if convicted of all charges. Rizzo faces the
longest sentence, 58 years, and Spaccia the shortest, 10 years.
The loans and other allegations came to light after the Los
Angeles Times revealed in July that Rizzo and other city officials
were making huge salaries. The resulting scandal triggered
nationwide outrage, turning the suburb of 40,000 people into a
poster child for government abuse.
The state audit also found:
-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.
-Rizzo used more than $93,000 to repay two personal loans and
approved $1.5 million in loans to other city workers even though no
city ordinance permitted it.
-The city paid $10.4 million to two development firms owned by a
contractor who also was the city's director of planning services.
-The city made a $4.8 million land purchase from a former mayor
without documenting how the land would be used. No work has been
done on the property, which contains a vacant store.
Also charged in the corruption probe were Mayor Oscar Hernandez,
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.
All eight, wearing jail jumpsuits and shackled at the waist,
appeared before Superior Court Judge Hilleri G. Merritt, who
continued their arraignments until Oct. 21 at the request of their
The group appeared somber except for Spaccia, who occasionally
smiled as she looked out at a packed courtroom where her adult son
Artiga, Jacobo and Cole were given permission to post bail
immediately after prosecutors agreed with defense attorneys that
the assets they planned to use had not been looted from Bell.
Four others then went to Pastor's courtroom to argue for reduced
bail. The judge reduced the amounts slightly for three of them.
Mirabal did not challenge his bail amount.