Brown concedes Bell lawsuit is novel

California Attorney Jerry Brown announces he's filing a civil lawsuit against eight current and former city officials in Bell, where big salaries have prompted angry protests.
California Attorney Jerry Brown announces he's filing a civil lawsuit against eight current and former city officials in Bell, where big salaries have prompted angry protests.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

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California Attorney General Jerry Brown announced Wednesday he’s suing eight current and former Bell city officials whose big salaries set off angry protests.

The civil lawsuit charges Bell officials with defrauding taxpayers, wasting public money and breaching fiduciary duty by giving themselves high salaries.

“This is a very serious matter when public officials breach their duty to the public and enrich themselves with enormous and obscene salaries," Brown said in announcing the lawsuit.

The lawsuit names Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez, two City Council members, two former councilmembers, former city administrator Mike Rizzo and his assistant, and former police chief Randy Adams.

Rizzo’s salary was nearly $800,000 a year. Four of five council members made $100,000 a year for their part-time jobs in the working class, mostly Latino community.

The attorney general’s lawsuit seeks to return that “excessive pay” to Bell taxpayers.

Brown conceded that the basis of his lawsuit is novel, given that city councils in cities controlled by their own charters have broad authority to set salaries.

“We are testing the proposition that there is a reasonable limit beyond which public officials cannot pay themselves," Brown said.

"We believe its inherent in the statutes of California, that number one require fiduciary duty. That means a heightened obligation of trust on the part of the city council and on the part of the city manager.”

An attorney for former city administrator Rizzo said his client believes he did nothing wrong. James Spertus told the Associated Press that Rizzo’s contracts were openly presented to the city council, and that he acted transparently.

Deputy Attorney General Susan Leach, who is leading Brown’s prosecution team, disputed that. She said Rizzo and his assistant were far from open about their pay.

“They conspired to hide the amounts that they were making," Leach said.

She added that "the city council — to the degree that they knew about that — they hid that information or they were simply not aware of it because they didn’t ask any questions.”

Brown said the council’s actions weren’t merely incompetent.

“They can’t just put their hands over their eyes and say they didn’t see anything. They have a duty to exercise sound judgment.”

The attorney general also announced he’s seeking compensation records for city officials in Vernon, where one official reportedly makes $1,000,000 a year in pay and benefits.

In addition, he promised to fight for the establishment of a state Compensation Commission to cap public salaries at “reasonable levels.”

A leader in a new Bell watchdog group welcomed Brown’s lawsuit. Ali Saleh of the organization Basta said he hopes L.A. County District Attorney Steve Cooley follows with criminal charges.

“We’re hoping now that the D.A. comes out with some criminal charges and these councilmen either resign or be taken out," Saleh said.

Nestor Valencia of the Bell Resident Club also welcomed the attorney general’s lawsuit, even as he questioned Brown’s motives. Valencia wondered whether Brown was "posing because he’s running for governor" or if the lawsuit had any "teeth."

Brown denied any assertion that his lawsuit is part of his campaign for governor against Meg Whitman.

Before a dozen TV cameras and twice as many reporters, he said he’s just doing his job as California’s attorney general.