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8 Bell officials arrested in salary scandal

September 21, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
Eight current and former Bell city officials were arrested Tuesday morning in connection with the city's salary scandal. They are scheduled to be arraigned in court Wednesday on charges of misappropriating more than $5.5. million in public funds. Eyewitness News confirmed the arrests of: former Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo, Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia, Mayor Oscar Hernandez, Vice Mayor/City Councilmember Teresa Jacobo, City Councilmember George Mirabal, City Councilmember Luis Artiga, former Mayor George Cole and former City Councilmember Victor Bello.

The officials were allegedly being paid for phantom committee meetings and making illegal personal loans, according to Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley's office.

"We are alleging they used the tax dollars collected from the hard-working citizens of Bell as their own piggy bank, which they looted at will," Cooley said at a press conference.

On Monday night, new allegations surfaced about Rizzo, the former city manager.

The state of California released the new audit of Bell records, saying that Rizzo used city funds to repay $95,000 of his personal loans. Rizzo's attorney denied the allegations.

Rizzo was arrested on 53 counts of misappropriation of public funds and conflict of interest. If convicted, he would face prison time.

Robert Rizzo put up no resistance when police arrested him Tuesday morning outside his Huntington Beach home. Rizzo moved into an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Huntington Beach a few years ago. His home has been valued at more than $940,000.

Former Police Chief Randy Adams, who was also scrutinized in the salary scandal, was not arrested.

Cooley, who knew Adams when he was the police chief in Glendale, said Adams was paid $457,000 a year but there was no evidence he obtained that salary illegally.

"Being paid excessive salaries is not a crime," Cooley said. "Illegally obtaining those salaries is a crime."

Prosecutors allege the suspects misappropriated more than $5.5 million.

Angry residents learned of the charges during a packed city council meeting.

"Do you actually believe that Rizzo did a good job?" one resident asked.

"I'm going to use a word I've never used in public before, but he basically raped the city," Mayor Pro Tem George Mirabal said Monday night at the meeting.

The crowd cheered at that statement. The full audit will be released from the state controller's office this week.

The group Bell Association to Stop The Abuse (BASTA), which has called on the resignation of the officials, said its members were elated about the arrests.

"I've seen all the pain and suffering that Rizzo and the administration has caused in the city, so my reaction was hopefully this is a step in the right direction toward healing, and a moment for the city to stop and reflect and keep forward with the job of creating better government and taking their city back," said Cristina Garcia, one of BASTA's leaders.

Bell's interim CAO Pedro Carrillo said in a statement, "I'm 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."

The bail for each official is:

  • $3.2 million for Rizzo, 56
  • $377,500 for Spaccia, 52
  • $285,000 for Hernandez, 63
  • $260,000 for Jacobo, 52
  • $260,000 for Mirabal, 60
  • $190,000 for Bello, 51
  • $145,000 for Artiga, 49
  • $130,000 for Cole, 60

Councilman emerges clean from the scandal

Bell City Councilman Lorenzo Velez was not implicated in the scandal.

Velez said he had no idea that his colleagues were getting such high salaries -- he certainly wasn't. He saw within a matter of weeks his entire city government unraveling around him. Now the rebuilding begins. Velez is a former PTA president.

"What it means to me is that finally I've been vindicated, that I wasn't participating in any of this," said Velez.

Unlike those implicated, Velez did not receive a fat salary offer from former City Manager Rizzo. In fact, when Velez was appointed, he did not even know there was a stipend or salary of any kind.

"I applied actually for the city council position. I thought everybody wasn't getting paid," said Velez.

He became suspicious as he tried to get answers. Rizzo's practice, said Velez, was to make promises privately instead of publicly.

"One of the tactics of Robert Rizzo was never to give you anything in writing," said Velez.

Velez rebelled, urging citizens to pressure the council.

"Don't allow them to give you an answer outside the chambers, because the only way we can go back and hold them accountable is by putting all the answers on the record," said Velez.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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