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Bell's measure of justice

Editorial

Mixed verdicts in Bell might not have offered the clean sweep residents wanted, but they underpinned what everyone already believed: Appalling wrongs were done to the working-class city.

March 22, 2013|By the Los Angeles Times editorial board
  • Five former Bell City Council members were found guilty Wednesday of stealing public money by paying themselves extraordinary salaries in one of Los Angeles County's poorest cities.
Five former Bell City Council members were found guilty Wednesday of stealing… (Los Angeles Times )

The mixed verdicts on the six former Bell City Council members might not have offered the clean sweep many residents had hoped for, but they nevertheless served as a welcome confirmation of what everyone already believed to be true: Appalling wrongs were done to the people of Bell. Officials who were supposed to be public servants in the working-class community took too much of the taxpayers' hard-earned money for themselves and nearly ruined the city in the process.

It's true that the defendants were acquitted on some charges, and there is still a possibility that all six might be able to avoid prison. But the jurors in the Bell trial faced a difficult task, sorting among multiple charges leveled at multiple defendants. (One was acquitted of all charges.) It's one thing to show that a person acted unethically — even despicably — but it's quite another to prove that he or she committed a crime.

The central figures in the municipal corruption scandal, former City Administrator Robert Rizzo and his top assistant, Andrea Spaccia, still face trial. Rizzo, who jacked his own compensation up to $1.5 million a year in pay and perks, was allegedly the brains behind the outsized city salaries that helped wipe Bell's coffers dry. Whether he will be found guilty at trial later this year remains to be seen. But whether he's convicted or not, his actions were in almost every way outrageous. He greedily and indefensibly stuffed his pockets and those of the favored few within his circle at the expense of a city that was none too wealthy to start with. Taxes were illegally raised and businesses were shaken down for bogus fees. If the criminal trials do nothing else, they give a full public airing of the misdeeds committed and offer Bell's residents the satisfaction of knowing that authorities didn't just let the matter skate once they had been revealed by The Times.

CHEAT SHEET: Bell corruption verdicts

Living well is the best revenge. In the two years since the problems were exposed, the town where too few people paid attention to local government now has an active electorate. Residents voted to recall wrongdoers on the council; illegally collected taxes were returned; voters took an avid interest in the election of new council members. An association of city managers sent in expert help to refashion municipal governance. Bell recently received recognition for, of all things, transparency about city salaries and other records. And people throughout the state learned once again that, unfortunately, good government cannot be taken for granted.

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