Prosecutors: Corruption ingrained in Bell

After months of jaw-dropping salaries numbers, tales of corruption and citizen outrage, eight current and former officials from the city of Bell have appeared in front of a judge in shackles and jail jumpsuits.

Prosecutors said Wednesday that corruption was so ingrained and unchecked in the blue-collar suburb that almost anyone who could have blown the whistle was benefiting from it.

Many will spend another night in jail as a judge kept bail high at the group's initial court appearance.

They include Robert Rizzo, the former city manager who was being paid nearly $800,000 when he resigned earlier this year, and according to a state controller's audit had total control of city funds.

Prosecutors said the basis of the charges were loans Rizzo made: to himself, his assistant, city council members, members of the police force and an array of city workers.

The felony complaint charging the suspects with misappropriation of public funds and other charges said the loans "were not publicly approved and the crimes were committed by persons who would otherwise have been responsible for reporting such conduct."

Court documents obtained Wednesday by the Los Angeles Times allege Rizzo told a city employee to draft phony contracts in September 2008 that concealed how much he and council members made.

The documents asked a judge to stop the city officials from using illegally obtained city money from Bell to bail out of jail.

Rizzo also was singled out in the state audit. It said city officials mismanaged more than $50 million in bond money, levied illegal taxes and paid exorbitant salaries to leaders.

"Our audit found the city had almost no accounting controls, no checks or balances, and the general fund was run like a petty cash drawer," state Controller John Chiang said in a statement. "The city's pursestrings were tied to only one individual, resulting in a perfect breeding ground for fraudulent, wasteful spending."

Pedro Carillo, the interim city manager who requested the audit, called the findings "reprehensible beyond words."

Rizzo's attorney James Spertus has said his client believes he did nothing wrong.

The defendants gained little in their appeals to have high bail slashed.

Rizzo's bail was reduced to $2 million, down from the $3.2 million prosecutors had requested, but far more than the $100,000 his attorney had sought.

"The notice of the charges in this case allege very serious criminal activity," Superior Court Judge Michael E. Pastor said.

Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Lentz Snyder, who argued for keeping the bail amounts high, said the eight officials face lengthy prison terms if convicted of all charges, including 58 years for Rizzo.

Arraignments for all eight were continued until Oct. 21.

The loans and other allegations came to light after the Los Angeles Times revealed in July that Rizzo and other city officials were making huge salaries. The resulting scandal triggered nationwide outrage, turning the suburb of 40,000 people into a poster child for government abuse.

Also charged in the corruption probe were Mayor Oscar Hernandez, 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.

Artiga, Jacobo and Cole were given permission to post bail immediately after prosecutors agreed with defense attorneys that the assets they planned to use had not been looted from the city.

All three were released from jail Wednesday night after posting bond that ranged from $120,000 to $260,000.

Four others then went to Pastor's courtroom to argue for reduced bail. The judge reduced the amounts slightly for three of them. Mirabal did not challenge his bail amount.

Associated Press writers Robert Jablon and John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Associated Press.