DA: Bell Officials 'Looted At Will'

SEPT. 22, 2010

By TORI RICHARDS, reporting from the courtroom

LOS ANGELES – The mayor and seven other current and former city of Bell officials made their first court appearance today to answer charges that they misappropriated more than $5.5 million in salaries and personal loans from the blue-collar suburb.

The defendants, which include Robert Rizzo, the former city manager who made $1.5 million a year in salary and benefits, stood in a group before Superior Court Judge Hilleri G. Merritt bound in handcuffs and wearing typical jail garb in a variety of colors.

They had been arrested Tuesday in a sweep by district attorney’s office investigators following a two-month corruption investigation into excessive salaries and unauthorized loans. The eight defendants had been charged with a total of 167 counts, including 53 against Rizzo alone.

Standing in a courtroom cage, the defendants were handcuffed to waist chains and wearing jail-issued uniforms of various colors. They did not speak to each other.

Rizzo spent the night in a medical ward of the jail and therefore his attorney James Spertus said he wasn’t able to discuss the charges with his client.

“Count 1 is even difficult for me as counsel to understand,” Spertus said regarding an allegation of misappropriation of public funds. He requested a continuance for the arraignment.

Merritt agreed to a postponement until Oct. 21 for the entire group. All had been unable to make bail until today because they had to show that they used legally obtained money for the bond. Bail amounts ranged from $3.2 million for Rizzo to $25,000 for the mayor and a councilman.

However, the prosecutor agreed that the vice mayor, and a current and a former council member had provided proof that they had untainted funds and were eligible for release on bond.

In a press conference Tuesday, Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley said the defendants were using city coffers as their own personal piggy bank, “which they looted at will.”

Cooley said the council members, who made upwards of $100,000 a year for working part time, were paid for meetings that they never attended or only lasted a few minutes. Rizzo gave himself personal loans and fabricated contracts giving him an exorbitant salary.

Later in the afternoon Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor heard arguments from attorneys for four of the defendants who wanted a lower bail amount. In all instances, the attorneys said their clients had ties to the community and would not flee.

Spertus said Rizzo has endured excessive media coverage and if he skipped bail “it would be Mr. Rizzo’s a fugitive on every channel on TV. There’s nowhere to run. No international ties.”

Pastor, however, disagreed after asking the prosecutor to divulge the maximum prison sentence for each defendant. It ranged from 10 years for assistant city manager Angela Spaccia to 58 years for Rizzo.

“The nature of the charges in this case demonstrates some very serious criminal activity,” Pastor said. “The offenses in this case are demonstratively serious and aggravated.”

He added, “There is, as far as I’m concerned, a real possibility of flight and real probability that they will not appear at future proceedings.”

Then Pastor reduced Rizzo’s bail to $2 million, Spaccia’s from $377,500 to $350,000 and Mayor Oscar Hernandez’s from $285,000 to $275,000 while keeping everyone else the same. The original bail amounts were set to reflect the amount that each defendant was accused of misappropriating.

Last week California Attorney General Jerry Brown sued most of the defendants for fraud and negligence in a case that also includes former police Chief Randy Adams. He was not charged criminally because Cooley said he couldn’t find anything that he had done illegally.

Both Cooley and Brown have both said they hoped to return some of the funds stolen from taxpayers.

Outside of court, Spertus said the two attorneys are using this case to further their own political agenda because both are running for higher office.

“The (prosecutors) have made allegations that I don’t believe are crimes,” Spertus said. “Mr. Rizzo never stole money. It’s a great campaign snippet.”

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