Ex-Bell officials plead no contest in fraud case
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Nearly four years after a small Los Angeles suburb was rocked by a corruption scandal of massive proportions, seven top officials who masterminded the theft of millions of dollars are having their final days in court — with some facing the prospect of lengthy prison terms.
The city of Bell’s former assistant manager, Angela Spaccia, was scheduled to be sentenced Thursday for misappropriation of public funds, conspiracy, falsification of government records and other crimes. Spaccia, who was convicted in December, faces as much as 17 years in prison.
On Wednesday, five former members of the Bell City Council pleaded no contest to two counts each of misappropriating public funds. They face terms ranging from probation to four years when they are sentenced in June and July.
Bell’s former manager, Robert Rizzo, is to be sentenced next week after pleading no contest to 69 counts of fraud, misappropriation of public funds and other charges. He is expected to be sentenced to about eight years.
“This is the most significant public corruption case our office has ever prosecuted,” District Attorney Jackie Lacey said after Spaccia was convicted.
At the time she was fired by Bell in 2010, Spaccia had an annual salary of $564,000. Rizzo had an annual salary and compensation package of $1.5 million, and each of the council members was getting about $100,000.
Prosecutors said former Mayor Oscar Hernandez and former council members George Cole, Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal and Victor Bello inflated their salaries by creating several sham boards and commissions that rarely met, accomplished nothing and really existed only to pay them.
As part of their plea bargain, they are barred from ever seeking public office again and must make restitution to Bell. Prosecutors and city officials estimate they owe about $1 million.
During their trial, the council members and their attorneys said it was Rizzo who masterminded the scheme that nearly bankrupted the working-class city of 36,000 where more than a quarter of the residents live below the federal poverty line.
An audit by the state controller’s office found Bell illegally raised property taxes, business-license fees and other sources of revenue to keep the money flowing. At one point homeowners in Bell, where the annual median household income is about $36,000, paid higher property taxes than those living in Beverly Hills.
In all, authorities say the city was looted of more than $5.5 million.
The breadth of the scandal, which former Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley once described as “corruption on steroids,” shocked both the nation and the city.
Thousands of Bell residents organized a recall campaign after learning of the salaries and subsequently voted all of the council members out of office.
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