Looking just like the ultimate “Fat Cat” politician, Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo, is charged in a Los Angeles courthouse with siphoning off more than $6.7 million dollars from the small, blue-collar city of Bell, California.
Bell is a tiny, poor city located within Los Angeles county. In 2.5 square miles, one in six of its 38,000 residents live below the poverty line. The per capita income is a mere $24,800, and roughly 90% of its residents are Hispanic or Latino. Rizzo and his fellows allegedly made a killing off of this community.
Among the misdeeds Rizzo and his political cronies are charged with include: squandering public funds, paying themselves outrageous salaries (Rizzo was making nearly $800,000 per year while the President of the United States makes $400,000), voter fraud, and using the city’s taxes as their own personal piggy bank. The Los Angeles County District Attorney has called this case “corruption on steroids.”
The trial has been temporarily put on hold while the California Court of Appeal examines legal procedural issues.
The Bell 8 are collectively charged with misappropriating $6.7 million in city fund for their own personal use.
The most serious charge against alleged ringleaders Rizzo and Spaccia — conspiracy to misappropriate public funds — could put them in jail for up to 9 years. They are also charged with violations ranging from conflict of interest to falsification of the official record. Combined, Rizzo and Spaccia are looking at serious jail time.
The remaining defendants are also facing misappropriation of funds charges but without the conspiracy angle. Some of them are facing as many as twenty separate counts of misappropriation. As litigation has wended its way through the Los Angeles criminal justice system and more facts have emerged, a few of the defendants have seen a few of these charges dropped, but all are still facing serious felony charges. A single count of misappropriation can come with a four-year jail sentence.
In a case the Los Angeles County District Attorney has called “corruption on steroids,” eight city officials from the small, working class city of Bell, California have been charged with using their positions to take more than $6.7 million dollars from Bell taxpayers.
Bell is one of the smallest, poorest cities in Los Angeles county, where one in six residents lives below the poverty line, and the per capita income is $24,800 per year. Enter Robert Rizzo and his band of scoundrels, who allegedly made all kinds of unauthorized changes to their employment contracts, giving themselves salaries higher than the President of the United States.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office is alleging conspiracy to misappropriate public funds and various counts of political malfeasance, including voter fraud, falsifying documents, and conflict of interest against Rizzo alone.
Word that the Bell city officials were using the city coffers and taxpayer dollars as their own personal piggy bank reached the public — and the police — in July 2010, following a Los Angeles Times exposé that Bell city leaders made among the highest salaries in the nation. The investigation took on statewide proportions, and even California’s governor Jerry Brown took notice.
Rizzo’s salary was so high that if he became eligible for California’s Public Employee Retirement Program, he would have been California’s first “seven figure retiree,” according to the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility.
Rizzo and his assistant, Angela Spaccia, were accused of convoluting their employment contracts to the extent that no one understood that they were paying themselves impossibly high salaries and of ensuring the cooperation of the Bell City Council by doing the same thing for the council members.
Council members Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal, George Cole and Victor Bello were all convicted of misappropriating public funds by sitting on Bell’s Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, an entity they could not prove had been legally established or did any work. Records show that in five years it met only one time. However, the panel of seven women and five men acquitted the defendants of some counts and were deadlocked 9-3 in favor of guilt on others.
Former Councilman and the pastor of Bell Community Church Luis Artiga was acquitted of all charges.
On October 4, 2013, Robert Rizzo pleaded no contest to 69 charges, only days before he was to go on trial for misappropriation of funds and related crimes. Judge Kathleen Kennedy told Rizzo during his plea that he would be sentenced to between 10 and 12 years in prison at his sentencing scheduled for March 12, 2014. Rizzo faced up to 70 years on all counts.
Robert Rizzo – Former City Manager who earned a base salary of $800,000 not counting the nearly $1.9 million in unauthorized loans he allegedly gave to himself, Spaccia, Artiga and Hernandez. In comparison, the President of the United States makes only $400,000 yearly. Rizzo is thought to be the ringleader, and in portly appearance alone, he certainly looks like the ultimate Fat Cat politician.
On October 4, 2013, Robert Rizzo plead no contest to all 69 charges, only days before he was to go on trial on charges of misappropriation of funds and related crimes. Judge Kathleen Kennedy told Rizzo during his plea that he would be sentenced to between 10 and 12 years in prison at his sentencing scheduled for March 12, 2014. Rizzo faced up to 70 years on all counts.
Angela Spaccia – Former Assistant City Administrator — Rizzo’s direct underling who made $376,288 annually.
Randy Adams – Former Chief of Police who stepped down amid the fallout over his $457,000 salary. He allegedly negotiated a contract with Rizzo for a disability pension when the man is also a noted runner and skier. Adams was convicted of misappropriating public funds, acquitted of several charges, and a jury was deadlocked on others. He awaits a new trial.
Luis Artiga – Former Council Member who is accused of making close to $100,000 per year in compensation for his part-time city employment.
Victor Bello – Former Council Member who is accused of making close to $100,000 per year in compensation for his part-time city employment. Bello was convicted of misappropriating public funds, acquitted of several charges, and a jury was deadlocked on others. He awaits a new trial.
George Cole – Former Council Member who is accused of making close to $100,000 per year in compensation for his part-time city employment.
Teresa Jacobo – Former Council Member who is accused of making close to $100,000 per year in compensation for her part-time city employment. Jacobo was convicted of misappropriating public funds, acquitted of several charges, and a jury was deadlocked on others. She awaits a new trial.
George Mirabal – Former Council Member who is accused of making close to $100,000 per year in compensation for his part-time city employment. Mirabal was convicted of misappropriating public funds, acquitted of several charges, and a jury was deadlocked on others. He awaits a new trial.
Lorenzo Velez – Former Council Member who is the only one who did not take home an inflated salary. He has stated that he had no idea about the salaries of the others. Velez was paid about $8,000 yearly for his city duties.
Oscar Hernandez – Former Bell City Mayor, who, at the outset of the scandal, stated that Bell city employees were paid on a par with the national average.
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October 7, 2013: And then there was one. How did this case go from eight defendants (and twice as many lawyers!) to just former assistant city administrator Angela Spaccia, all by herself?
The Bell Six, as the former city council members came to be known, all faced similar charges with nearly identical evidence connecting them to the misappropriation of taxpayer money. They were tried together earlier this year, and the jury deadlocked, unable to come to a verdict. Lawyers are now gearing up for a new trial.
Former Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo and Angela Spaccia, however, as the allegedly more culpable defendants, were in a case by themselves. Then, on the eve of the trial against Rizzo and Spaccia, Rizzo struck a deal with the prosecution.
In exchange for his testimony against Spaccia, his former assistant, and a no contest plea to 69 felony charges of misappropriating public funds, hiding and falsifying records, perjury and various other crimes, Rizzo will be sentenced to a prison term between 10 and 12 years and restitution payments to the small California city of $1 million to $3.2 million.
Meanwhile, the only one still standing is Spaccia. Rizzo, through his lawyer, claimed that Spaccia was in fact the mastermind behind the corruption scheme. He told the court that it was her scheme that inflated his salary to $800,000 a year and hers to nearly $400,000 a year, all at the expense of Bell’s largely working-class taxpayers.
Now, it will be up to Spaccia and her defense attorney, Harland Braun, to prove that she was merely Rizzo’s assistant, just doing her job. Braun is well-known in Los Angeles as a tough and intelligent defense lawyer who will not go down without a fight, and it looks like he’s going to get one. He has contested the judge hearing the matter, Kathleen Kennedy, arguing that she assisted with plea negotiations for Rizzo and cannot be objective in the case against Spaccia.
Ultimately, of course, it will be up to a downtown Los Angeles jury to determine who is more credible, Rizzo or Spaccia, and where the true culpability for the corruption lies.
March 11, 2012: For lawyers on both sides, the biggest challenge of this case is simply its size and scope. With eight defendants, eight defense lawyers and a team of prosecutors working on the matter, there’s a long way to go before the case will be resolved. Wild About Trial has sat in on several court hearings in this case, and even the simplest proceedings always take eight times as long with so many defendants and lawyers.
Some of the defense lawyers have stated that a recent Supreme Court decision might benefit the Bell 8. The Supreme Court said that prosecutors in public corruption cases have to prove that defendants either (a) knew they were breaking the law, or (b) were criminally negligent in not knowing they were breaking the law. For law junkies, that case is Stark v. Superior Court.
It’s hard to believe that Rizzo & Co. didn’t know they were breaking the law by using taxpayer dollars to give themselves salaries higher than the President’s, but if they were dumb enough to think they could get away with retiring on seven-figure pensions, maybe they were just dumb enough to not know it was a crime.
At this point, a trial is still months away and delayed even longer while the California Court of Appeal examines several procedural issues, but it’s sure to be a long and wild ride, as more facts come to light about the depths to which these oliticians allegedly sank in stealing from the poor residents of Bell.