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Prosecutors detail steps Bell leaders allegedly took to hide high salaries

Court documents accuse former City Administrator Robert Rizzo of ordering an employee to draft false contracts and other records to conceal how much he and council members made.

September 23, 2010|By Jack Leonard, Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles County prosecutors, in records obtained Wednesday by The Times, lay out in the most detail yet the lengths to which they allege former Bell City Administrator Robert Rizzo went to hide extravagant salaries for himself and other city officials.

The court documents accuse Rizzo of directing an employee to draft false contracts and other records in September 2008 that concealed how much he and council members made. Then a few months ago, under growing scrutiny of his salary, the city manager asked a subordinate to obtain Mayor Oscar Hernandez's signature on some of those 2008 contracts, the court filing says. The subordinate pointed out that another council member had been the mayor in 2008.

"Rizzo directed the subordinate to obtain Oscar Hernandez's signature anyway because Hernandez would be willing to sign," the documents say. "The subordinate did so."

The allegations were made in court documents asking a judge to prevent Rizzo and seven other current and former city leaders charged this week from using money improperly taken from Bell to bail themselves out of jail.

Rizzo's attorney, James W. Spertus, did not return a call seeking comment on the allegations. But he has repeatedly said that his client is innocent.

The prosecution documents allege that Rizzo used the false 2008 contracts in response to questions about his salary. He allegedly told one citizen who asked whether he was really making $400,000, "If I can make that kind of money, I wouldn't be working here."

Prosecutors accused Rizzo of continuing to use the false contracts in recent months amid growing scrutiny of his salary by the district attorney's office and others.

Sometime after June, one of the false 2008 contracts was given to the city attorney following requests for records of Rizzo's pay. The contract listed Rizzo's salary as $221,460. In reality, Rizzo was on course to make more than $1.5 million in salary and benefits this year.

As recently as last week, Rizzo pointed to the contracts in response to questions from the state attorney general's office and falsely claimed they were genuine and were approved by the City Council, the court documents allege.

"By continuing to maintain the fiction that the documents purporting to be September 2008 contracts are genuine, Mr. Rizzo continues to retain public funds feloniously obtained," Deputy Dist. Atty. Max Huntsman wrote in one of the court documents.

As The Times reported earlier this month, prosecutors said that the contracts were never approved by the council. In addition, Huntsman alleged that Assistant City Administrator Angela Spaccia's computer was used in 2005 to generate a contract that gave her large raises without council approval.

"A substantial portion of her compensation from the City of Bell appears to have been obtained feloniously," Hunstman wrote.

Spaccia was charged this week with misappropriating public funds, but she was not charged in connection with the alleged 2005 contract.

The court documents also say Rizzo directed an employee to draft a memo in 2008 that listed council member pay as about $8,000 a year. In reality, council members were making far more — nearly $100,000 earlier this year.

Rizzo, 56, is charged with 53 felony counts of misappropriation of public funds, falsification of public documents and conflicts of interest. If convicted, he faces up to 58 years in state prison.

The other Bell defendants are charged with misappropriating public funds. All eight are expected to enter pleas Oct. 21.

Wearing brown jail scrubs and shackled to a waist chain, Rizzo appeared in court Wednesday alongside the seven other defendants. He rocked gently back and forth in his chair as his attorney argued that his bail should be reduced.

"He has been here for 30 years," Spertus said in court. "There is nowhere to run.... Everybody knows his face."

Superior Court Judge Michael E. Pastor reduced Rizzo's bail from $3.2 million to $2 million, but declined to significantly change the bail amounts for the other defendants.

"The charged offenses are, in my opinion, extremely serious," Pastor said.

Councilwoman Teresa Jacobo was released on $260,000 bail, and Councilman Luis Artiga was released on $120,000 bail. Former Councilman George Cole was expected to be released late Wednesday. Rizzo, Spaccia, Hernandez and Councilman George Mirabal and former Councilman Victor Bello remained behind bars late Wednesday.

jack.leonard@latimes.com

Times staff writers Richard Winton and Jeff Gottlieb contributed to this report.

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