Bell Officials' E-Mails: We Act Like Pigs

Former and current Bell city employees, Robert Rizzo (L), former city manager, Angela Spaccia (2L), former assistant city manager, Victor Bello (3L), former council member, and Oscar Hernandez (R), mayor, attend a bail reduction hearing on September 22, 2010 in Los Angeles. Eight officials from the impoverished Californian town of Bell were arrested on charges of paying themselves vast salaries at the expense of local taxpayers, prosecutors said. The eight, including former municipal manager Robert Rizzo of the city of Bell just south of Los Angeles, stand accused of using roughly 5.5 million dollars of public money to benefit themselves, through illicit loans. "This was calculated greed and theft accomplished by greed and secrecy," said District Attorney Steve Cooley, after the officials were arrested mostly without incident. Bell is a small working class Latino suburban town about six miles (10 kilometers) south of central Los Angeles. It is one of the poorest municipalities in Los Angeles county. AFP PHOTO/Al SEIB/POOL (Photo credit should read AL SEIB/AFP/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES - The two top officials in the scandal-ridden California city of Bell illegally paid themselves hugely inflated salaries and created a paper trail to hide their actions while joking that they were acting like pigs, according to a document filed in court Monday by the district attorney's office.

E-mails and other documents from former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia's computer will show that beginning in 2005 she and former City Manager Robert Rizzo created phony contracts never approved by the City Council that raised their salaries to "outrageous" levels and made it difficult to determine exactly how much they were being paid, according to the 19-page memorandum from District Attorney Steve Cooley.

What's more, prosecutors said, when the city began receiving state public records requests for the officials' salaries last year, Rizzo had Mayor Oscar Hernandez sign backdated contracts approving the payments, although Hernandez was not the mayor when the contracts were written.

The memorandum was submitted for a preliminary hearing scheduled later this week to determine if there is sufficient evidence for Rizzo, Spaccia, Hernandez and former Councilman Luis Artiga to stand trial on charges of looting the blue-collar suburb of $5.5 million.

Hernandez, Artiga and four other current and former members of Bell's City Council are the subjects of a separate public hearing now under way involving charges of looting the city. Prosecutors say the six served on numerous city boards that rarely met, did little work, and only existed to pay the huge salaries. That hearing is expected to conclude by Wednesday.

The six, along with Rizzo and Spaccia, have all pleaded not guilty to multiple fraud charges. Their attorneys maintain that while their salaries may have been high, it was not a crime to be well paid.

The document filed Monday called Rizzo a "godfather of sorts" who was able to bilk the city that employed him for years because he used nearly $2 million of public money to make loans to dozens of people, including Hernandez and Artiga, when they were going through hard economic times. In exchange, prosecutors say, the elected officials and numerous other people did his bidding.

"Rizzo and Spaccia succeeded in concealing their conduct for so long in part by trickery ... and in part by buying loyalty of city employees," the memo said.

It also quoted an e-mail exchange between Spaccia and Bell's former police chief Randy Adams in which the assistant city manager explains that officials' contracts are written in such a way as to hide their salaries from the public.

"We crafted our agreements carefully so we do not draw attention to our pay," she is quoted as telling Adams. "The word pay period is used and not defined in order to protect you from someone taking the time to add up your salary."

The two also joke by e-mail of enriching themselves at the expense of Bell, a modest, working-class suburb of Los Angeles where one in six people live in poverty.

"I am looking forward to seeing you and taking all of Bell's money," Adams writes at one point, according to the memo.

"LOL . well you can take your share of the pie . just like us," Spaccia allegedly replies. She goes on to say that one of Rizzo's favorite sayings is that pigs get fat but hogs get slaughtered.

"So as long as we're not hogs . all is well," she is quoted in the document.

Rizzo's attorney James Spertus did not immediately respond to a message for comment. Spaccia's attorney Russell Petti said prosecutors took her words out of context.

Adams was pressing Spaccia for an even more generous salary and compensation package, and she was trying to tell him tactfully that he was already being offered plenty, Petti said.

"Obviously I wish she'd worded it differently, and I'm sure she wishes she'd worded it differently, but the point of the whole exercise was to reduce the compensation package," he said.

In telling Adams how pay agreements were written to keep people from learning salaries, Spaccia was relaying to Adams a policy Rizzo had established years before she came to work for Bell, Petti said.

Rizzo had an annual salary and benefits package of $1.5 million a year when he was fired last year. Spaccia, who was also fired, was making $376,288 a year. Each of the six current and former council members facing charges was making about $100,000 a year. Hernandez and two others remain on the City Council and are facing a recall election next month.

Adams, who was paid $457,000 a year, was also fired but has not been charged with a crime. Prosecutors say simply accepting a huge salary is not illegal.

The last time Rizzo's salary was legally approved by the Bell City Council, it was for $300,000 in 2004, according to the district attorney's office. Prosecutors say Spaccia's last legally approved salary was for $130,000 in 2003.