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California political watchdog investigates 3 in Bell scandal

The Fair Political Practices Commission suspects that former City Administrator Robert Rizzo and two former councilmen violated conflict-of-interest and gift-giving laws in 2010.

March 08, 2012|By Jeff Gottlieb, Los Angeles Times
  • Former Bell City Administrator Robert Rizzo's purchase of plane tickets for colleagues' trips to his horse farm in Washington state is under scrutiny.
Former Bell City Administrator Robert Rizzo's purchase of plane… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

A 2010 outing to a Washington state horse ranch owned by former Bell City Administrator Robert Rizzo is being investigated by a state agency that suspects the onetime city leader and a pair of council members may have broken conflict-of-interest and gift-giving laws.

The allegations against Rizzo and the two part-time city politicians stem from May 2010 airline flights to Washington state, where Rizzo owns a horse farm.

Rizzo paid $1,299 to buy tickets for then-Mayor Oscar Hernandez, his live-in girlfriend and her three children. He also paid $737 for then-Councilman Luis Artiga's trip. It was not clear if Artiga traveled alone.

The fact that Rizzo paid for the trips raises questions about the relationships between him and the former council members. During Rizzo's 17-year tenure as Bell's chief executive, council members' salaries rose to almost $100,000 a year for a part-time job, while his own compensation ballooned to about $1.5 million annually.

In launching the investigation, the state Fair Political Practices Commission becomes the latest government agency to stick its head into the Bell scandal, which has resulted in criminal charges against eight former city officials — including Rizzo, Hernandez and Artiga — and a political makeover of the entire City Council.

Rizzo, Hernandez and Artiga face potential fines of $5,000 per offense in the FPPC's probe.

The commission's allegations are the least of their legal problems, however. Along with four other former council members, Artiga and Hernandez face felony charges of misappropriation of public funds for receiving salaries as members of city boards that seldom, if ever, met.

All six former politicians in the working-class city in southeast L.A. County are free on bail.

Rizzo and his second in command, Angela Spaccia, face dozens of felony charges for their alleged roles in draining the city's finances, including paying themselves outsize salaries without council approval, lending city money and falsifying documents.

There are also pending investigations by several other agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, Securities and Exchange Commission and state Department of Corporations.

James Spertus, Rizzo's attorney, said the FPPC is just piling on.

"It just kind of shows anyone who has any investigative authority over anything is trying to jump on the bandwagon," he said.

Artiga's case has advanced the furthest. He can either stipulate to the violation of the laws or eventually take it to a hearing before an administrative law judge. His attorney declined to comment.

Hernandez's attorney, Stanley L. Friedman, said the former councilman will fight any allegations against him.

jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com

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