Bell, Calif., officials charged with misappropriating funds
The former city manager and several current and former council members of Bell, Calif., have been charged with misappropriating public funds in connection with unusually high salaries the officials had collected during their terms. Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley says the officials misappropriated more than $5.5 million, including paying themselves for phantom committee meetings and making illegal personal loans.
In July, Bell was the target of a Los Angeles Times special report about the high salaries that were being paid to former city manager Robert Rizzo, Mayor Oscar Hernandez, Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo, former assistant city manager Angela Spaccia, current council members George Mirabal and Luis Artiga, and former council members George Cole and Victor Bello. All eight now face charges on multiple counts of misappropriation of funds. "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.
Rizzo, who was being paid nearly $800,000 annually before he resigned in July, is charged with 53 counts of misappropriation of public funds and conflict of interest, according to Cooley's office. Among the allegations is that, beginning in 2008, Rizzo, hired as Bell's chief administrative officer in September 1994, wrote his own employment contracts that were never approved by the city council, and gave nearly $1.9 million in unauthorized loans to himself, Spaccia, Artiga, Hernandez and others.
Hernandez, Jacobo, Mirabal, Cole, Bello and Artiga face nearly two dozen counts of misappropriating approximately $1.2 million of public funds. Cooley said the mayor and council members illegally gamed the system to receive unreasonably large salaries for little or no work. According to records subpoenaed in the case, between 2006 and this year, council members were paid nearly $8,000 a month for meetings on four boards that never took place or lasted just a few minutes, a violation of the state's Government and Penal Codes. "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," Cooley said.
Bell has implemented several changes to improve the integrity of its government, according to statements on the city's website. "In the past month, the Bell City Council, Interim CAO [Pedro Carrillo] and Interim City Attorney [James Casso] have made many changes to bring good government practices to Bell," the statement reads. "At the August council meeting, the city council reduced property taxes and is now working with legislators and the state controller [on legislation] to secure rebates for Bell residents who were over assessed from 2007-2010."