8 Bell officials plead not guilty to felony charges

A display of pictures of current and former City of Bell council members who were arrested on corruption charges is seen following a news conference on September 21, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.
A display of pictures of current and former City of Bell council members who were arrested on corruption charges is seen following a news conference on September 21, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Eight current and former Bell city officials facing felony charges of bilking taxpayers out of millions of dollars pleaded not guilty today.

The charges include two newly filed counts -- conflict of interest and misappropriation of public funds -- against former city manager Robert Rizzo, bringing to 55 the number of charges he is facing.

"I promised last month when the first wave of charges were filed that the investigation of the looting of Bell was ongoing and there was more to come,'' District Attorney Steve Cooley said. "Filing of the original charges
was a good beginning. Today's case is another step in the continuing process.''

Rizzo, 56, has asked the city of Bell to pay for his attorneys to defend him against the criminal charges and a lawsuit filed last month by California Attorney General Jerry Brown.

Rizzo is charged along with former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia, 52; Mayor Oscar Hernandez, 63; City Council members Teresa Jacobo, 52, and George Mirabal, 60; and former councilmen Luis Artiga, 49, George Cole, 60, and Victor Bello, 51.

The eight were arrested early Sept. 21 on charges of misappropriation of public funds. Since then, all but Mirabal and Bello have posted bail and been released from jail.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Hilleri G. Merritt ordered Mirabal -- who appeared in court in jail clothes -- to return to the downtown courthouse Friday for a hearing on various motions.

The other defendants were instructed to return to court Dec. 8, when a date is scheduled to be set for a hearing to determine if there is enough evidence to require them to stand trial.

At a brief hearing before the arraignment, Superior Court Judge Mary Lou Villar rejected the prosecution's request to set bail for Rizzo at $2.4 million involving the two new charges, which were filed Wednesday and announced today.

Rizzo is free on $2 million bail posted in connection with the charges filed last month.

"I don't think it's necessary for the court to add additional bail,'' Villar said.

The new charges stem from a contract Rizzo allegedly influenced between the city of Bell and D&J Engineering. Rizzo and the engineering firm's owner were partners in a horse racing business, according to the District Attorney' Office.

Prosecutors said the initial charges against the eight involved charges of misappropriation of more than $5.5 million in taxpayer money, while the new counts against Rizzo involve an additional $2.4 million in alleged losses.

"This was calculated greed and theft accomplished by deceit and secrecy,'' Cooley said shortly after the arrests were made. "... This, needless to say, is corruption on steroids based upon our experience.''

"The Bell City Council, for their part, provided no checks and no balances,'' Cooley said. "Council members were busy enriching themselves by collecting money for meetings that never occurred. In some cases, council members received illicit loans approved by Mr. Rizzo. Many of the illegal loans were secured by beyond-exorbitant benefit packages.''

The criminal complaint alleges that the former city manager misappropriated more than $1.9 million in public funds by giving unauthorized loans, including $80,000 to himself and more than $300,000 to Spaccia.

Others receiving unauthorized loans included employees of the police department, recreation department, community services, code enforcement and business offices, according to the complaint.

The prosecution also alleges that Rizzo "did steal, remove, secrete, destroy, mutilate, deface, alter and falsify'' documents involving his September 2008 employment agreements with the city for him to serve as
executive director of the city's Public Financing Authority, Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, Community Housing Authority and Surplus Property Authority.

Rizzo and other top city officials stepped down in July after the salary scandal broke. City Council members, who were earning almost $100,000 a year, significantly slashed their pay, but have balked at calls for their