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Rizzo obscured true salary

Ex-Bell official said his pay was lower than it was. Some experts say his actions could invalidate his contracts and require that he repay money he earned.

September 15, 2010|By Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives, Los Angeles Times

Former Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo went to considerable lengths to keep his huge salary secret, including actions that could invalidate his contracts and potentially require him to repay money he received, some experts believe.

According to records and interviews, the city of Bell and Rizzo himself represented his salary as being significantly lower than it was. When one councilman asked Rizzo about his salary last year, the city manager gave him a sum that was less than half the approximately $700,000 Rizzo was actually earning at the time.

The steps Rizzo took that obscured his true pay began in September 2008. At that point, he was already earning about $632,700 a year, making him one of the highest-paid city managers in the nation. That month, Rizzo signed five new contracts that kept his salary the same but changed the way he was paid. Rather than getting his entire salary from his primary job as city manager, he would now be paid in chunks from a variety of city agencies.

The contracts were signed by Oscar Hernandez, who in the documents was identified as Bell's mayor, a position that rotates among council members. At the time, Hernandez was a councilman but not the mayor. The contracts were never approved by the City Council and never placed on the council agenda.

City officials are reviewing the contracts, looking at whether Rizzo attached a previous signature from Hernandez to them or persuaded him to sign the documents even though he was not mayor. Hernandez and the man who was mayor at the time, George Mirabal, both declined to comment.

"With many practices in Bell there appears to be a disregard for process and procedure under Mr. Rizzo's tenure," said interim City Atty. Jamie Casso, adding that officials are trying to determine whether the contracts could be invalidated.

Rizzo and other top city officials stepped down this summer after their high salaries were reported by The Times. City Council members, who received some of the highest salaries in the state, slashed their pay. The state Legislature approved bills aimed at making it easier for the public to see the salaries of city leaders.

On at least two occasions, Rizzo or other city officials provided inaccurate information about his salary. The month Rizzo received the new contracts, Roger Ramirez, a Bell resident, filed a request under the California Public Records Act asking for the salaries of Rizzo, the mayor and the other council members. Ramirez received a memo from the city saying Rizzo received $15,478 a month — or $185,736 a year.

The document also says the mayor and other council members were paid $673 a month — about $8,000 a year. Council members actually made about $92,000 annually. Like Rizzo, the council members drew their salaries from multiple city boards and commissions.

The document Ramirez received says it was prepared by Bell's finance department. But Casso said the memo appears not to have come from that department. Acting City Administrative Officer Pedro Carrillo raised the possibility that Rizzo wrote the document himself.

James Spertus, Rizzo's attorney, has strongly denied that his client did anything wrong. Asked about the 2008 changes from one contract to five, the attorney said that they were orchestrated by then-City Atty. Edward Lee and that Rizzo went along with the changes because his overall compensation was unchanged.

Lee denied that account in an interview with The Times, saying he never saw the contracts. Lee did not sign the documents, as he had with most of Rizzo's previous contracts.

The issue of exactly how much Rizzo made came up again in 2008, when Luis Artiga was appointed to the council. Artiga said that soon after he took office, community activist Nestor Valencia began asking how much the city manager made.

"I asked Rizzo, 'Nestor says you make over $250,000.' He says, 'No. I make $350,000.' " Artiga said.

Rizzo then gave him a document that showed he was paid $185,736, Artiga said, acknowledging that he didn't ask about the discrepancy at the time. The document turned out to be the same memo Ramirez had received.

"Obviously, [Rizzo] lied to me," Artiga said.

The councilman said he learned of Rizzo's full salary only on July 9, a few hours before Rizzo was scheduled to meet with two Times reporters to discuss his compensation. Rizzo called the councilman and Hernandez into his office and told them he actually made $700,000, Artiga said. (In fact, Rizzo's salary was close to $800,000.)

A few months earlier, Bell resident William Fick had asked for taxable-income information about city officials but was told in a letter from an assistant city attorney that the information was not public, Fick said.

He then asked for a list of all city employees and contractors who made more than $100,000 a year. The city said it had the information on an electronic database and would charge Fick $475 to retrieve the information.

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