Theodore Roosevelt, 1903

"Let us speak courteously, deal fairly, and keep ourselves armed and ready." - Theodore Roosevelt, 1903

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Crooks Were Running Wild In Bell

Let's talk about the City of Bell right here in California.

Bell is a city in Los Angeles County. Its population was 36,664 according to the 2000 census, and is a suburb of the city of Los Angeles. At 2.5 square miles (6.5 km2), Bell is listed as number 13 in the list of the 25 smallest cities in the United States that have a population of at least 25,000 (ranked from smallest to largest in area).

In 2007, the U.S. Census Bureau ranked Bell's land area at 1245 out of 1257 cities (defined as incorporated areas) and two unincorporated areas that had a population of at least 25,000 in year 2000. Ten cities in the list of 1267 cities had no land area data (e.g., Goleta, California).

Isn't it amazing how stats are kept on just about everything? Well, in some cases the data serves us well. It puts things in proper perspective.

For example, there are about 40,000 people in the City of Bell. The racial makeup of the city is mostly Hispanic, with about 40% White.

We also know that the median income for a household in the city was $29,946, and the median income for a family was $30,504. The per capita income income of $24,800 in 2008, according to the city’s latest annual report. More than 25% of its residents live below the poverty line, including 30% of those under age 18 and 17% of those age 65 or over.

So in a city where the average income is about $25,000 a year, why was the City of Bell city manager Robert Rizzo getting $787,637 a year?

Yes, that's almost double the salary of the President of the United States. Imagine that for a second, this guy Rizzo was a City Manager of one of the poorest cities in all of Southern California.

So if we include benefits, he received $1.5 million in 2009. Rizzo's assistant Angela Spaccia, was earning $376,288 a year, more than the top administrator of Los Angeles County. And as for the City of Bell police chief, Randy Adams, well he was paid $457,000. That my friends is 33% more then City of Los Angeles Police Chief.

All three resigned following news reports and public protests for justice. All but one of the members of the city council were receiving $100,000 a year for service on a City Council that meets about once a month in the modest working-class Los Angeles suburb where one in six people live in poverty.

And by the way, in case you're curious, yes they voted in their own salaries through rules they formed and passed during a special election where only 400 voters showed up to give the city its Charter status. To demonstrate how crooked this all was, think about this, usually Council members in cities similar to Bell in size make an average of $4,800 a year.

On September 15, 2010, the California Attorney General's office filed a lawsuit against eight former and current employees, requesting the return of what the suit calls "excessive salaries" as well a reduction in pension benefits accrued as a result of those higher salaries.

Allegations about problems in the 2009 election also have been examined by the FBI and California Secretary of State office. The city's high property taxes were also investigated because of the city inflating the values so that they can get more taxes out of their people.

Only recently have the property taxes in Bell been readjusted to their correct rates.

On September 21, 2010, former city manager Robert Rizzo, Mayor Oscar Hernandez, former assistant city manager Angela Spaccia and council members George Mirabal, Teresa Jacobo, Luis Artiga, George Cole and Victor Bello were arrested and charged with misappropriation of public funds.

All in all, the City of Bell mayor Oscar Hernandez and former city manager Robert Rizzo are among those accused of looting $5.5million from public funds.

So now fast foward to February 23, 2011, this year.  We now know that Rizzo and the others were arrested and gained national notoriety last summer after their crimes were revealed.

We also know that Rizzo is being charged with more than 50 counts of misappropriating public funds, conflict of interest and falsifying public records.

But on the first day of a preliminary hearing to determine if there is enough evidence for Rizzo and three other past and present Bell officials to stand trial, his attorney indicated it was Rizzo and not the people of Bell who was victimized.

Can you image the cojones on this guy! He wants people to believe that Robert Rizzo was victimized, and not the City Of Bell.

"Everybody has agreed that it’s not a crime to be paid too much," attorney James Spertus said during his opening statement.

Then he went on to say that if it wasn't for the Los Angeles Times' report on Rizzo's salary, and the international media attention and public outrage that created, Rizzo would not be facing charges.

Well no shit! That's like saying, well if Rizzo hadn't gotten caught than it wouldn't have been a crime! And thank God, the prosecutors disagree with Rizzo's lawyer. It was a crime and Rizzo got caught at it.

Rizzo and three other city officials are the last of the Bell Criminals to be arraigned, as the other current and former council members have already been ordered to stand trial following a similar hearing earlier this month on charges.

To give you an idea of the kind of underhanded dealings that was going on in Bell. Look at Bell resident Roger Ramirez who said he got wind of the huge salaries in 2008 and actually confronted Rizzo.

Ramirez asked Rizzo whether he made $400,000 a year as Ramirez had heard.

"He immediately said, 'No, Mr. Ramirez, if I would be making $400,000 a year, I wouldn’t be working here," Ramirez testified.

Ramirez subsequently filed a public records request and received documentation showing Rizzo was paid $15,478 a month and the council members $673 a month. Imagine that!

Bell's administrative services director, Lourdes Garcia, testified that after Ramirez made his request, Rizzo told her to provide those numbers.  Just so if anyone enquired, that's the amounts they would find.

The Los Angeles Times eventually obtained Bell’s true salaries last year through its own public records request.  Garcia said shortly before that, City Clerk Rebecca Valdez told her Rizzo had ordered that she have Hernandez sign his contracts even though Hernandez wasn’t mayor at the time they were written.

Valdez testified at the earlier hearing that she provided Ramirez with false information on Rizzo's orders. She was expected to testify at this hearing as well.

After the hearing, Rizzo put on a pair of dark glasses and tried to leave court anonymously. I bet he longs for the days when crooks were running wild in Bell and no one knew about it.

To me, there is something satisfying, almost wonderful, when corrupt leaders of a community get caught and are brought to justice.

The whole attitude that "since there isn't anywhere in the rules that says that I can't do it, it ain't a crime," is just Bullshit! It's pure nonsense to think that you can get away with things like this, and the people who believe that there are no consequences to what they do are simply wrong!

Famed western writer Louis L'Amour once wrote, "Everything a man does is an indication of his character, whether he cheats at cards or takes an unfair advantage because it is legal."

I know one thing, it ain't the Cowboy way!

And yes, that's just the way I see it.

Tom Correa









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