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Eight Bell city officials arrested

9/20/2010, 5 p.m.

BELL - Eight Bell city officials, including former City Manager Robert Rizzo, were arrested today as part of an investigation by the District Attorney's Office into lofty salaries earned by administrators and elected leaders.

"This was calculated greed and theft,'' District Attorney Steve Cooley said at a late-morning news conference.

Along with Rizzo, the officials arrested were former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia, Mayor Oscar Hernandez and City Council members Luis Artiga, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal. Also arrested were former council members George Cole and Victor Bello.

Cooley said Rizzo was charged with 53 counts of misappropriation of public funds and conflict of interest, saying he bilked the city out of about $4.3 million. Included in those charges is the allegation that he wrote his own employment contracts that were never approved by the City Council.

The current and former council members were charged with nearly two dozen counts of misappropriating about $1.2 million. Cooley said Bell City Council members were collecting salaries for meetings that never occurred.

Collectively, the defendants bilked the city's taxpayers out of about $5.5 million, Cooley said.

The district attorney said the defendants used "tax dollars collected from the hard-working citizens of Bell as their own piggy bank,'' which they raided at will.

For two months, the District Attorney's Office and state and federal authorities have been investigating Bell, where high salaries earned by Rizzo and other top officials have sparked widespread outrage.

Last week, California Attorney General Jerry Brown filed a lawsuit against current and former Bell city leaders demanding that their pay contracts be nullified and that they pay back some of their salaries and pension benefits. Artiga was not one of those named in the lawsuit, and he said he was working with investigators.

Rizzo and other top city officials stepped down in July after the salary scandal broke. City Council members, who were earning almost $100,000 a year, significantly slashed their pay but have balked at calls for their resignations.

According to an investigation by the Los Angeles Times, Rizzo had been earning about $800,000 a year and was set to earn more than $1.5 million this year. He also gave loans to more than 50 city officials, including himself, totaling $1.6 million, The Times reported.

Breakdown of the charges filed:
* Former City Manager Robert Rizzo, 56, is charged with 53 felony counts, including 44 counts of misappropriation of public funds between July 1, 2005, and July 22, 2010; six counts of falsification of public records by an official custodian; and three counts of conflict of interest. The charges include an allegation that he "took, damaged and destroyed property of a value
exceeding $2.5 million.''

* Mayor Oscar Hernandez, 63, is charged with 21 felony counts of misappropriation of public funds between Jan. 1, 2006, and July 26, 2010. The criminal complaint alleges that he took more than $262,000.

* Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo, 52, is charged with 20 felony counts of misappropriation of public funds between Jan. 1, 2006, and July 26, 2010. The criminal complaint alleges that more than $262,000 was taken.

* City Councilman George Mirabal, 60, is charged with 20 felony counts of misappropriation of public funds between Jan. 1, 2006, and July 26, 2010, along with the allegation that more than $262,000 was taken.

* City Councilman Luis Artiga, 49, is charged with 13 felony counts of misappropriation of public funds between June 1, 2008, and July 26, 2010, and is accused of taking just over $129,000.

* Former City Councilman Victor Bello, 51, is charged with 16 felony counts of misappropriation of public funds between Jan. 1, 2006, and Dec. 31, 2009. The criminal complaint alleges that he took more than $193,000.

* Former City Councilman George Cole, 60, is charged with 12 felony counts of misappropriation of public funds between Jan. 1, 2006, and Dec. 31, 2008. He is accused of taking more than $133,000.

* Former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia, 52, is charged with four felony counts of misappropriation of public funds between July 1, 2005, and July 22, 2010. The criminal complaint alleges that she took more than $1.3 million.

By Terri Vermeulen Keith | City News Service