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Attorney general sues former and current Bell City officials to recover salaries

9/15/2010, 10:37 a.m.

BELL - The state attorney general's office today sued eight former and current Bell city officials, accusing them of fraud, civil conspiracy and waste of public funds in an effort to recover hundreds of thousands of dollars in unwarranted salaries.

Attorney General Jerry Brown's lawsuit, which names ex-City Manager Robert Rizzo and three current council members, also calls for the reduction of pension benefits for the officials.

The Bell officials, whose salaries were easily the highest in the nation among public employees, deliberately "abused their public trust,'' Brown said today, charging "a civil conspiracy that defrauded the public'' and made the small town's politicians rich.

"We want that money,'' Brown said, adding that "getting the money back--that's what I see as the principal objective.''

Brown said he would widen his probe into public salaries in general and called for legislation to reform salary and pension practices. He also announced that his probe would extend to the city of Vernon, which has also come under scrutiny for excessive salaries.

Rizzo, the former manager for the city of fewer than 40,000 residents, made about $1.5 million in salary and benefits last year. The police chief pulled in $457,000, and the assistant city manager made $376,288.

The mayor and three of four city council members were making almost $100,000 for part-time jobs.

Along with Rizzo, Brown's lawsuit names ex-assistant city manager Angela Spaccia; ex-police chief Randy Adams; council members Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabel; and former council members Victor Bello and George Cole.

Rizzo's attorney, Jim Spertus, said he had not reviewed the lawsuit, but said his client did nothing illegal and never tried to hide his salary.

Rizzo's compensation "was approved by the City Council and countersigned by the city attorney, and Mr. Rizzo submitted regular budgets to the city that contained regular salary information,'' Spertus said.

"It does not surprise me that at this time during the election cycle that these charges would be brought,'' the defense attorney said, referring to Brown's current run for governor.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Auditor-Controller said Bell residents would not get property tax refunds because of overpayments until Bell sends the county $2.9 million, which it is not required to do before Dec. 31.

Bell residents had been paying the second-highest property tax rates in the county, higher than in Beverly Hills, although Bell is one of the poorest cities in the county. About 17 percent of Bell residents live in poverty.

Brown's lawsuit demands the defendants return all excessive payments and asks the court to establish appropriate salary levels for pension purposes since pensions are based on salary.

Rizzo's final annual base salary was $787,638, Adams' was $457,000, and Spaccia's was $336,000.

Bell council members were paid $96,000 a year before they took a recent cut, prompted by news reports.

Cities of similar size pay their council members $4,800 a year, Brown said.

The attorney general said city officials cannot just pay themselves whatever they want, "otherwise they can all give themselves a million dollars and go to Brazil.''

Fred Shuster | City News Service