8 City Officials Arrested In Calif. Salary Scandal
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
It's been an angry summer in Bell, California, ever since the small town learned that some of its officials were paying themselves huge salaries. Today, eight of those officials were arrested as part of a corruption investigation. They included ex-City Manager Robert Rizzo, who was making about $800,000 a year. Today, Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley called the situation in Bell, corruption on steroids.
NPR's Ina Jaffe is following these developments and joins us now. And Ina, the city manager became the symbol of this scandal when people learned he was making about twice as much as the president makes.
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SIEGEL: But he wasnt alone when the arrests were made. Tell us about it.
INA JAFFE: No, there are seven others arrested along with him. They are four current members of the city council, a couple of former members of the city council, and a former city assistant administrator. The council members were making about $100,000 a year for very part-time work. And according to the charges, some of that money was for attending meetings of boards of commissions that never actually met.
But Robert Rizzo really is the face of this scandal, and partly its his face that has made it so. The picture of him that usually appears in the newspapers, he looks like this beefy guy who could be a cast member of The Sopranos.
And if you listen here to L.A. District Attorney Steve Cooley, Rizzo ran the city of Bell like his personal fiefdom.
Mr. STEVE COOLEY (L.A. District Attorney): Rizzo, acting as the unelected and unaccountable czar of the city of Bell, secretly set his own salary. He misappropriated substantial pay and benefits by increasing each of them through a series of actions that no one approved of and few, if anyone, knew about.
JAFFE: Rizzo is now facing 53 counts of misappropriation of public funds and conflict of interest. And I should mention that theres one current city council member of the five who was not arrested. And he apparently wasnt in on the so-called deal. He makes a very small salary, and was really surprised when he found out how much his colleagues were making.
SIEGEL: Ina, is there any sense of how much money in all was spent on these huge salaries, and will the people of Bell actually get any of that money back?
JAFFE: Investigators have a pretty good idea of how much money was bilked from the city of Bell. The district attorney put the price tag of Rizzos alleged wrongdoings at $4.3 million. And for the city council members, that comes to $1.2 million. The state controller says that Bell residents were overcharged some $3 million in property taxes, $1.5 million in business license fees that he says were illegally raised.
And state Attorney General Jerry Brown has filed civil fraud charges against Bell officials. He filed those last week, seeking to recover the money and prevent them from collecting enormous pensions based on their sky-high salaries.
SIEGEL: And since the obvious question here is how could no one have noticed this there was no review at all by the city council of these salaries?
JAFFE: You have to understand what the city of Bell is like. Its about two and a half square miles, its a working-class town, and really one of the poorer cities in all of L.A. County. It has only 40,000 residents. Many of them are Latino immigrants, many arent eligible to vote, many dont speak English. So it hasnt been a place with much civic participation. But with the attention being paid to the scandal now, that could change.
SIEGEL: Okay, thank you, Ina.
JAFFE: Youre welcome.
SIEGEL: NPRs Ina Jaffe, reporting on todays arrests of eight officials in the town of Bell, California.