Los Angeles County prosecutors have launched a wide-ranging investigation into allegations of voter fraud and conflicts of interest involving municipal business in Bell, Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said Tuesday.
In an interview with The Times, Cooley described an investigation considerably larger in scope than previously acknowledged by prosecutors, saying that it was "multifaceted, rapidly expanding and full-fledged." Investigators have been gathering evidence since March, he said.
Until now, prosecutors had said only that they were looking at the $100,000 annual salaries paid to four of the five Bell City Council members and were seeking to determine if the payments were larger than allowed under state law. The voting fraud claims and allegations of possible conflicts of interest in city business add significant new issues about how government operated in the small working-class city where top city officials were among the nation's highest paid.
Cooley also said investigators were looking at whether council members had received pay for meetings they did not attend or meetings that lasted only a few minutes. Most of the pay that Bell council members received came not from their City Council salaries, but as stipends for serving on the boards of city panels, such as the Public Financing, Surplus Property, and Solid Waste and Recycling authorities. City records indicate that those boards performed little work and that their business was routinely conducted during council meetings. In some cases, the board meetings would last no more than a minute, according to the records.
Monday night, board members agreed to cut their pay from all sources by roughly 90%, to about $8,000 a year.
Cooley declined to provide details about either the conflict-of-interest allegations or the voting-fraud probe, other than to say that his investigators were reviewing several elections. Sources with knowledge of the investigation said that among the subjects that prosecutors are looking at is the use of absentee ballots during the March 2009 City Council election.
Six candidates ran in that contest in which incumbents Teresa Jacobo and Luis Artiga, both current council members, retained their seats, with 31% and 28% of the vote. The next largest vote-getter received 11%. About 40% of the city's nearly 10,000 registered voters cast ballots, and city records show that 39% of the votes in the election were absentees.
Cooley, who is the Republican nominee for state attorney general, said prosecutors began their investigation in March after receiving a complaint about conflict of interest. The investigation is in its early stages.
In addition to the district attorney's office, several other law enforcement agencies are examining various aspects of Bell's affairs. Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, who is the Democratic nominee for governor, announced Monday that his office has subpoenaed hundreds of documents from Bell as it looks into the city's high salaries.
Also Tuesday, state Controller John Chiang, a Democrat seeking reelection, announced at a news conference at Bell City Hall that his office would audit the city's finances. He called the salaries and pensions for city officials "unjustifiable" and said his office will be "taking a hard look at the books."
The Times reported earlier this month that City Manager Robert Rizzo was making $787,000 a year, Police Chief Randy Adams was making $457,000 and Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia was making $376,000, among the highest salaries in the country for their positions. The three have agreed to resign. They will be eligible for hefty pensions.
Allegations about problems in the 2009 election also have been examined by the FBI and California's secretary of state office. An FBI source confirmed that the agency is familiar with the allegations. A spokeswoman for the secretary of state said complaints are confidential and that the office could not discuss them.
At least two individuals have alleged voting irregularities in Bell. In a June 17, 2009, letter to David Demerjian, head of the district attorney's Public Integrity Division, then-Bell Councilman Victor Bello accused the city's election commissioner of falsifying ballots.
And a former Bell police sergeant has alleged in a lawsuit that several Bell officers distributed absentee ballots in the 2009 election, told residents to vote for the two incumbents and retrieved ballots from some voters.
In his lawsuit, James Corcoran says he was forced out of his job after he reported the activity to state and federal authorities last year.
Corcoran, 57, said in an interview that he had not seen the officers passing out absentee ballots. But, he said, "I have enough intel, enough data, were I investigating it, I know I could uncover some malfeasance."
Corcoran's suit alleges myriad wrongdoing by Bell officials, including sexual harassment and sexual assault and corruption. He alleges that in 2009, he told the secretary of state office and the FBI that "off-duty police officers were taking absentee ballots and providing them to voters to fill out." He said that the officers would instruct voters how to vote and that ballots had been filled out for voters who had died.
In a police report attached to his complaint, Corcoran listed the names of 19 voters who he said were either dead or living in Lebanon at the time that their votes were cast. Bell has a small Lebanese community.
Times staff writer Paloma Esquivel contributed to this report.