By Joan Trossman Bien
Now that five of the six City of Bell counci lmembers on trial have been convicted of corruption charges, all eyes are turning to former city administrator Robert Rizzo and his assistant, Angela Spacchia. They are both charged with misappropriating public funds, conflict of interest, falsifying public documents, and secreting public documents. Prosecutors say the pair had misappropriated more than $6.7 million in public funds.
Bell is not a big city at 2.5 square miles and the residents are poor. Mostly Hispanic, the average income in 2009 was under $25,000 a year. Unemployment in Bell runs at 16 percent. Yet this working poor town of 38,000 has the dubious distinction of paying some of the highest property tax rates around, higher than the property taxes in Beverly Hills.
Funds from those bogus taxes and myriad other schemes went straight into the pockets of city officials, especially the pockets of Rizzo and Spacchia.
Rizzo is facing 69 counts of corruption. He gave himself raises, 12 percent annually, based on his salary of more than $787,000. When he was fired, he had a salary of $1.5 million. He also gave himself some sweet benefits including 28 weeks of paid time off each year. His pension was supposed to be $880,000 a year. Two other secret bank accounts were located by investigators including one that held $4.5 million and a second account was funded to avoid IRS caps on government pensions.
In defense of his shocking salary, Rizzo said, “If that’s a number people choke on, maybe I’m in the wrong business…The council has compensated me for the job I’ve done.”
Spacchia chimed in saying, “I would have to argue you get what you pay for.”
Of course, for the greedy, even this is not enough. Back in 2010 when Rizzo found himself cut off from his money tree, he decided to sue Bell for back pay. Additionally, Rizzo demanded that his personal legal fees be paid by the city. Representing himself in the lawsuit, Rizzo claimed that his contract for employment was “evergreen” and renewed itself automatically every year. That unapproved contract had an unapproved clause that said it could be severed only with 90 days notice.
When Rizzo insisted that he had been given severance pay by the city council which later refused to pay, Lorenzo Velez, a city councilman who was not charged in the scandal, said, “He resigned without severance pay. I will not even give [him] a penny cut in half.”
Rizzo’s bravado will be tested when he goes to trial. During the trial of the six council members, each of them pointed to Rizzo as the person who orchestrated the many acts of corruption. They said he convinced the council members to accept outrageous salaries, based on their placement on committees that either never met or only met for a few minutes. He also had greed on his side which finally won over the rest of the council. Apparently, their protests of not wanting to participate were worn down when enough money was thrown in their faces.
Former Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley famously called the actions of the officials a case of “corruption on steroids.”
One of the defense lawyers referred to Rizzo as “the thief, the fraud, the destructor of the city.” Another defense lawyer stated in court, “We are here for Mr. Rizzo’s sins.”
Rizzo is not above histrionics when confronted with a legal proceeding. In his first hearing, he complained of chest pains on the first day and was taken from the hearing on a stretcher. After spending one night in the hospital, he returned to court and slept through most of the hearing.
When Rizzo demanded that the charges against him be dismissed, his motion was denied by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy who wrote in her opinion, “The City of Bell charter did not make Bell a sovereign nation not subject to the general penal laws of the State of California.”
Of course, there were the secretive contracts intended to hide the salary and benefits for their new police chief, Randy Adams. The scheme included one aspect that Adams demanded. He insisted that at the time he was hired, he would be declared disabled at the time he would retire. That would have allowed Adams to collect millions in pension payments tax-free. Yet at the time, Adams took difficult spinning classes and ran a 5K race. Just preceding his employment in Bell, Adams applied for the job of Orange County sheriff. In that application, Adams noted that he enjoyed skiing and had been in the 120-mile Baker to Las Vegas Relay run. He did not mention any injuries at the time.
It will be a while before Rizzo faces a jury. The Los Angeles Times won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for its revelation of what was happening in Bell and for pursuing the story relentlessly. As such, attorneys for Rizzo say they will be asking the court for a change of venue. They are claiming that the court cannot find an unbiased jury anywhere the Los Angeles Times is distributed. You can bet that battle will go on for a long time. But stay tuned. This story is just getting interesting.
Joan Trossman Bien has been writing news most of her professional life. She started writing as an intern at KNX Newsradio and wrote as a freelancer at nearly every television station in Los Angeles. She graduated from law school in 2004. At present, she is a regular writer for cover features at the Ventura County Reporter and Pasadena Weekly. She enjoys writing about an array of topics including health care, politics, women’s issues, and social justice. Bien lives with her journalist husband in Ventura County. They have one grown daughter who is also a journalist. Bien hales from Glencoe, Ill., a small suburb outside Chicago.