Bell, California officials in court on corruption charges

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Eight current and former officials of the city of Bell arrived in court Monday for a preliminary hearing to determine if there is sufficient evidence to try them on charges of looting the working-class Los Angeles suburb of $5.5 million.

Meanwhile, a prosecutor confirmed that attorneys for six of the eight have had preliminary discussions about reaching a possible plea bargain.

The eight — including the mayor, vice mayor and former city manager — are named in dozens of counts of misappropriation of public funds in a scandal that District Attorney Steve Cooley described as “corruption on steroids” on the day they were taken from their homes in handcuffs last September. Former City Manager Robert Rizzo is also charged with falsifying public documents in an effort to hide the scandal.

Outside court, Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Lentz Snyder confirmed prosecutors had discussed a possible plea bargain with attorneys for all of the officials except Rizzo and former Deputy City Manager Angela Spaccia. Snyder declined to discuss possible terms of the deal, saying the talks were only preliminary.

“We have been contacted about a possible disposition in this case,” she said. “We have provided a response.”

Rizzo, the former Bell city manager who was paid an annual salary and compensation package of $1.5 million a year, faces the most charges — more than 50 counts.

Others charged are Mayor Oscar Hernandez, Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo, Councilman George Mirabal, former Mayor George Cole, former Councilman Luis Artiga, former Councilman Victor Bello and former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia.

Spaccia received an annual salary of $376,288 and the mayor and council members were paid about $100,000 a year for their part-time service to the city of about 40,000 people. Hernandez, Jacobo and Mirabal all face a March 8 recall election.

Authorities have said Rizzo was the ringleader of a scandal that went unchecked for years in which officials illegally paid themselves the huge salaries as well as made low-interest, unapproved loans to themselves and other city employees who ranged from high-ranking police officers to rank-and-file recreation attendants.

The money, according to local and state officials, came from property taxes and business license fees that had been raised illegally, as well as other funds, such as gas taxes, that were never intended for such use. The result, according to a recent report from Bell’s interim city manager, is that Bell is as much as $4.5 million in debt and on the brink of bankruptcy.

All eight defendants appeared briefly before Superior Court Judge Upinder S. Karla on Monday and agreed to have the cases brought against them combined for one preliminary hearing, which is expected to last at least a week.

All have pleaded not guilty and all but Bello are free on bail. He appeared in court in an orange jail jumpsuit, the others in business attire.

The scandal came to light last summer when the Los Angeles Times reported on the salaries of Rizzo and others, prompting outrage in the blue-collar city just east of Los Angeles where one in six people live in poverty.

The Associated Press

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