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CRISIS IN BELL

How Bell hit bottom

Robert Rizzo seemed right for the town -- until he became an 'unaccountable czar.'

December 28, 2010|By Christopher Goffard | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Whether by chance or design, Rizzo found himself with an increasingly free hand. More than anyone, it was Hernandez who came to symbolize the new, more manipulable City Council. A former farmworker, he had emigrated from Mexico in his teens. With only an elementary school education, he could barely read the papers that passed across his desk at City Hall. And yet he became Rizzo's go-to man, prosecutors say, putting his signature to complex documents and to papers that obscured the city administrator's increasingly hefty salary.

Though Rizzo's office remained threadbare, his private lifestyle was acquiring a majesty undreamed of in the working-class city he ran. His salary jumped from $250,000 in 2002 to $300,000 in 2004, the year he bought a lavish horse ranch in Washington state. Few in Bell knew it, but he had become a breeder of thoroughbreds.

Then, on a sleepy day after Thanksgiving in 2005, a little-noticed election was held. The single question on the ballot: whether to turn Bell from a general law city into a charter city. By some accounts, it was a change Rizzo had aggressively pushed.

Passing with just 336 yes votes, the measure lifted salary caps on council members, who went on to approve further dramatic pay raises for Rizzo and for themselves.

His salary jumped to $442,000 that year. It kept climbing until, by last summer, Rizzo was making nearly $800,000, with a benefits package that brought his annual compensation to $1.5 million. He had brought in an assistant, Angela Spaccia, who was paid nearly $400,000 a year, and a police chief, Randy Adams, who collected $457,000.

Council members, for their part, were making nearly $100,000 a year in part-time positions that in most small cities paid a few hundred dollars a month.

Meanwhile, police were impounding cars at a furious clip, looking for broken taillights and missed turn signals as a pretext to pull drivers over. In a city where an estimated half of the residents are illegal immigrants, unlicensed drivers were easy to find. Bell charged them $300 to get their cars back. Fearing deportation, they were unlikely to complain.

"That was the reason we were able to do it for so long. And when they did complain, there was no one to complain to," Jimenez said. "There were single officers impounding eight cars a day. It was out of control. If they weren't impounding cars, they felt like they weren't working."

Earlier this year, before the scandal broke, Rizzo crashed into a neighbor's mailbox while attempting to pull into his own driveway, and police found him with a blood-alcohol level more than three times the legal limit. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a first-offender alcohol-awareness program.

Now, he and his assistant, along with six current or former council members -- Hernandez, Mirabal, Teresa Jacobo, Luis Artiga, George Cole and Victor Bello -- are charged with bilking the city out of millions of dollars.

Rizzo declined to be interviewed for this story. His lawyer, James Spertus, said the corruption charges are unfounded and that his client did much good for the city while earning comparatively little for years.

"He took over a city that was deeply in the red," he said. "Rizzo made five-figure salaries until the late 1990s. It was way below the median for his position."

Trevis, the former chief, now speaks nostalgically about the city he remembers. There were big-city problems such as gangs and graffiti, but he regarded Bell as a "little Mayberry," a tight-knit and friendly place.

Most of those swept up in the scandal are people he's known for years. He recalled how he'd steer hungry people to the church on Gage Avenue where Artiga, its pastor, had a reputation for feeding them. How Hernandez gave groceries on credit to people who couldn't pay. How Mirabal, the funeral director, buried people at deep discounts so their families wouldn't have to hold car washes to raise the money.

Trevis thinks he knows what went wrong in Bell. It was the same thing, he said, that sometimes happens to happy families that come into a big inheritance.

"They got poisoned with money," he said.

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In Bell, purging the remnants of the Rizzo era has become an obsession, one that can assume strange, even ritualistic forms. Bell's merchants have rebelled against the Chamber of Commerce, where Rizzo was a longtime member of the board. The organization came to be seen as an extension of his power.

On a recent night, hundreds of merchants crowded into a banquet hall to inaugurate an alternative, the Bell Business Assn. They took turns detailing the abuses they had suffered at the hands of City Hall: arbitrary fees, long waits for permits and the ever-present threat of code enforcement to deter potential complaints.

The association's first president, tire shop owner Jose Vazquez, compared Rizzo's management of the city to the Mafia: "This is like 'The Sopranos.' "

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