Bell, Calif., Residents Cheer Arrest Of City Leaders

Eight current and former officials of the Los Angeles suburb of Bell have been arrested in connection with the ongoing scandal over drastically inflated salaries and alleged misuse of city funds. Among those taken into custody is the former city manager who was earning nearly $1 million a year in salary and benefits.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

In Los Angeles, eight current and former officials of the small, blue-collar town of Bell are being arraigned on corruption charges this morning. They were arrested yesterday. The scandal broke over the summer, with the revelations that officials received sky-high salaries as part of an alleged scam that cost the town millions of dollars. Here's NPR's Ina Jaffe.

(Soundbite of crowd reciting Pledge of Allegiance)

INA JAFFE: The Pledge of Allegiance has been especially popular in the city of Bell lately, especially the last part.

Unidentified crowd: With liberty and justice for all.

(Soundbite of cheering)

JAFFE: The news that their city leaders had been led away in handcuffs yesterday brought about 100 people to the lawn in front of City Hall to share their joy.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man: Now let's celebrate.

JAFFE: Lydia Barrios said she could hardly wait to leave work and come down here.

Ms. LYDIA BARRIOS: I was telling everybody at work, they got arrested; they got arrested! This is like, fabulous. This is like, fabulous news.

JAFFE: Her friend Jesus Casas was wearing a T-shirt that said, basta. That's Spanish for enough. In English, it's the acronym for an organization called the Bell Association to Stop the Abuse.

Casas called the arrests just the beginning for Bell residents.

Mr. JESUS CASAS: It's the beginning. I don't like to call it a victory, but it's the beginning of a victory.

JAFFE: That's because Bell residents must learn to keep an eye on their city leaders from now on, says Casas. Bell should be a lesson to residents of all cities, he said.

Mr. CASAS: They'll need to participate. You need to be aware of your city government, which is a wake-up call, so that other cities and other cases will not repeat again.

JAFFE: Until recently, civic participation wasn't high on the agenda of most of Bell's 40,000 residents. Many are immigrants. Some can't vote; some speak only Spanish. But this summer they began packing city council meetings, after the Los Angeles Times revealed that then-City Manager Robert Rizzo received a salary of nearly $800,000 a year. On top of that, most city council members were paid about $100,000 a year for their part-time jobs.

L.A. District Attorney Steve Cooley said that council members received stipends for attending meetings that never even took place.

Mr. STEVE COOLEY (District Attorney, Los Angeles): They used the tax dollars collected from the hardworking citizens of Bell as their own piggy bank, which they then looted at will.

JAFFE: In addition to the whopping salaries, Bell officials also received extremely generous benefits packages. And, said Cooley, they allegedly used city coffers for nearly $2 million in personal loans.

Mr. COOLEY: This was calculated greed and theft, accomplished by deceit and secrecy.

JAFFE: Bell residents paid a high price, literally, for this alleged corruption. Their property taxes were some of the highest in Southern California, according to the state controller, who says that business license fees were also illegally high. The district attorney put the city's losses from the scandal at $5.5 million. And he said these arrests represent just the first wave of the investigation.

Mr. COOLEY: An investigation such as this is very much like peeling away layers of an onion. Each time a piece is pulled away, another piece is uncovered. Filing of charges today is a beginning, but a very good beginning.

JAFFE: Former City Manager Robert Rizzo faces the most charges - 53 felony counts, including misappropriation of public funds, and conflict of interest. Prosecutors will ask the court to set his bail at $3.2 million. District Attorney Cooley says that before any of those arrested yesterday make bail, he'll ask the court to examine where they got the money.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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