BELL, Calif. — The mayor, the ex-city manager and six current and former officials of Bell, Calif., were headed from jail to court today as residents of the modest, working-class suburb celebrated their arrest on charges of bilking taxpayers out of $5.5 million.
As former City Manager Robert Rizzo, Mayor Oscar Hernandez and the others were rounded up during yesterday morning raids on their homes, residents across the city honked their car horns, burst into cheers and staged impromptu celebrations.
The eight were scheduled to be arraigned in court today on charges of misappropriating more than $5.5 million in public funds.
“They used the tax dollars collected from the hardworking citizens of Bell as their own piggy bank, which they then looted at will,” District Attorney Steve Cooley told a news conference in Los Angeles soon after all eight were taken from their homes in handcuffs.
At City Hall in Bell, where one in six residents lives in poverty, people gathered to laugh and applaud as someone played the Queen song “Another One Bites the Dust.”
“I got so excited that, oh my God, I couldn’t breathe,” said Violeta Alvarez, who has lived in Bell for 31 years. “I’m excited. I’m happy. I have tears of joy in my eyes.”
Rizzo, who was making nearly $800,000 a year, was booked on 53 counts of misappropriation of public funds and conflict of interest. Messages left at his home and with his attorney were not returned.
Others taken into custody were former assistant city manager Angela Spaccia, Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo, council members George Mirabal and Luis Artiga and former council members Victor Bello and George Cole.
“I seen them take out Mirabal in handcuffs,” longtime resident Hassan Mourad said after the arrests. “I seen them drag him out.”
At the mayor’s house, police briefly used a battering ram when Hernandez didn’t immediately come to the door.
Spaccia was making $376,288, and four of the five current City Council members were paying themselves nearly $100,000 a year.
Authorities said Rizzo made $4.3 million by paying himself through different employment contracts that were not approved by the City Council. Meanwhile, council members paid themselves a combined $1.25 million for what Cooley called “phantom meetings” of various city boards and agencies.
Rizzo also was accused of giving $1.9 million in loans to himself, Spaccia, Hernandez, Artiga and dozens of others.
Rizzo, Spaccia and former Police Chief Randy Adams, who was making $457,000 a year, resigned and the council members reduced their salaries to about $8,000 following the disclosures. Adams was not arrested.
Cooley said there was no evidence the former police chief illegally obtained his $457,000 salary. The figure was $150,000 more than the Los Angeles chief of police gets paid.
“Being paid excessive salaries is not a crime,” Cooley said. “Illegally obtaining those salaries is a crime.”
Cooley said his investigators have pored over more than 60,000 pages of documents and more people could be arrested.
His office began investigating last March, four months before the Los Angeles Times reported the salaries, which brought national attention to the small city of 40,000 people.
Cooley praised the Times, saying the scandal occurred in part because residents and much of the news media paid little attention to what was happening at Bell City Hall until the story broke.
Since the scandal broke, public officials, city managers and others have said the situation in Bell showed why people must insist that elected officials communicate honestly and openly with them.
“One of the problems that was obvious with Bell was the lack of transparency and the lack of involvement on the part of the public,” Dave Mora, West Coast regional director of the International City/County Management Association, said recently.
Bell’s interim chief administrative officer Pedro Carrillo said the arrests marked a sad day for the city.
“It is clear that Rizzo and Spaccia were at the root of the cancer that has afflicted the city,” he said.
Interim City Attorney Jamie Casso said he expected Bell could carry on business as usual, adding that Carrillo and Lorenzo Velez — the one council member who wasn’t arrested — were meeting regularly. Velez was not taking a high salary.
The district attorney’s office is one of several agencies investigating Bell.
Last week, Attorney General Jerry Brown sued eight current and former officials of Bell, accusing them of defrauding taxpayers by granting themselves salaries he said were far higher than warranted for the jobs they were doing.
Artiga was not named in the lawsuit but Adams was.
Earlier this month Bell officials confirmed the city was also the target of a racial profiling investigation by the federal government for allegedly targeting young Hispanic drivers for traffic stops to raise revenue.