Image: Suspects from Bell, Calif.
AP
Booking photos provided by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department show from top left, Luis Artiga, Victor Bello, George Cole, and Oscar Hernandez; from bottom left, Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal, Robert Rizzo, and Peir'Angela Spaccia. The eight are charged with taking more than $5.5 million from the working-class suburb of Bell, Calif. in a scandal that triggered nationwide outrage and calls for more transparency in government.
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updated 9/28/2010 2:32:16 PM ET 2010-09-28T18:32:16

A few would-be whistleblowers suspected for years that the government in this working-class Los Angeles suburb was corrupt and that leaders were secretly paying themselves six-figure salaries.

But their attempts to uncover the scandal were stifled at every turn by the city. They claim they were mocked, insulted and intimidated and that their public information requests were shredded or falsified. They were cut off or ignored at City Council meetings when they tried to confront leaders.

"Every meeting I went to there were people addressing issues left and right," said Roger Ramirez, an emergency medical technician who grew up in Bell and has been attending City Council meetings regularly since 1992. "They would just blow people off. They would give you a time limit of two minutes to speak, tell you, 'We're working on the agenda, we need to get on with this, and cut you off.'"

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Bell has become a national embarrassment in recent weeks since it was revealed that top city officials in the modest blue-collar suburb were making gigantic salaries, including $787,637 a year paid to the city manager and nearly $100,000 for four members of a City Council that normally meets just once a month. A prosecutor called it "corruption on steroids" last week as eight officials were hauled into jail.

City Manager Robert Rizzo lived lavishly. He owns a home in upscale Huntington Beach a mile from the ocean that is valued at almost $1 million. He also has a horse ranch near Seattle where acquaintances said he kept several thoroughbred horses.

Red Tape: Does your city manager earn $800,000?

When numerous perks like vacation, insurance and other benefits were added to his salary, his total compensation package from Bell was about $1.5 million a year.

The City Council members lived in modest homes in the community, but residents say they drove expensive cars and talked of taking overseas vacations to China and elsewhere.

The criminal charges have made the scandal all the more frustrating to people like Ramirez, who believe they could have uncovered the abuses years ago.

When he publicly confronted the City Council more than two years ago about a tip he'd received that Rizzo was paid several hundred thousand dollars a year, Ramirez says he was all but laughed at. He was told if he didn't believe the salary tip was a lie, he should go to City Hall and look up the salaries himself.

When he tried to do just that, Ramirez says, he was told to file a formal request under the state's Public Records Act. When he complied, a city official handed him a report weeks later that listed Rizzo's salary as about $180,000 and the council salaries as about $8,000 a year.

A criminal complaint filed by Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley's office said that Rizzo "did steal, remove, secrete, destroy, mutilate, deface, alter and falsify" the documents Ramirez requested.

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Rizzo's attorney, James Spertus, has said his client did nothing wrong. While the public may believe his client's salary was too high, Spertus said, the City Council chose to pay him that because members thought he was worth it. City Council also have maintained they did nothing illegal.

Cooley said Rizzo was able to exploit the city on behalf of himself and others thanks to an "uninvolved electorate."

"They have to really care about their city," Cooley said. "This was not the case in this instance."

But Bell residents say it's not that simple. It was impossible to penetrate the bureaucracy and corruption, they said.

"City Hall was run kind of like a closed corporation," said Ali Saleh, who has attended City Council meetings for years and is helping lead a recall of the four arrested City Council members. "They don't allow any information that was requested or it was either given wrong or you were told, 'You can't receive it.' Or they didn't respond at all."

Investigators say the corruption went well beyond salaries. City officials allegedly mismanaged more than $50 million in bond money, levied illegal taxes and lent cash to an array of municipal employees.

Meanwhile, residents noticed business license fees, property taxes and other charges going up every year — until Bell had the second-highest property tax rate in Los Angeles County, ahead of wealthy cities like Beverly Hills.

Enrique Martinez, who for 34 years has owned Pacific Furniture, said taxes on his building rose from about $600 five years ago to $2,450 today.

Ramirez said the status of the bond fund was an issue he raised repeatedly with city officials, and former assistant city manager Angela Spaccia herself once told him not to worry.

"She told me, 'I would never be involved in a city if there was any corruption going on,'" he recalled with a laugh. Spaccia was among those arrested.

Several people acknowledged they didn't pressure city officials as much as they could have, however, because they feared retribution.

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"I used to always feel scared when I'd go in to see them. They made me feel like a criminal," said Vaskan Derparssghian, a Syrian immigrant who runs a small tobacco shop and who fought with the city over rising business license fees and costs associated with putting up a sign.

Political scientist Jaime Regalado said a city like Bell, with a large, hard-working immigrant population where one in six people live in poverty, is an easy mark for a crooked government. Many people are too busy working to get involved in city matters and those who do are easily intimidated or given the run-around.

But he said that seems to be changing in Bell. Outrage in the modest city has become so great that people of diverse backgrounds have banded together to protest the abuses. Signs supporting the recall sprouted in yards all around town, including several across the street from City Hall.

The Bell Association to Stop the Abuse plans to turn in recall petitions against four City Council members containing more than 4,000 signatures on Wednesday as they hope to hold an election to oust the leaders. The group's acronym is Basta, which translates to "enough already" in Spanish.

"Coalitions are very hard to form, there has to be a catalytic event or series of events," said Regalado, head of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

"And that's just what you've got in Bell now," he added.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Payback time for Bell, Calif. city officials

  1. Transcript of: Payback time for Bell, Calif. city officials

    WILLIAMS: Good evening.

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: With political anger roaring across this country like a prairie fire, tonight we're going to take you to a small town where the citizens there found out how much their public servants were making and they went wild. It happened in Bell , California , where the former city manager, just for starters, was making $800,000. Well, tonight eight current and former town officials are in jail. The LA County DA is calling this "corruption on steroids," and all public officials like them across the country should probably regard this as a warning shot. We begin tonight with NBC 's George Lewis , who is in the LA suburb tonight. George , good evening.

    GEORGE LEWIS reporting: Good evening, Brian . The eight are accused of misappropriating $5 1/2 million of city funds for their own use. Authorities from the district attorney's office rounded them up first thing this morning.

    Unidentified Man #1: Excuse me, do you have anything to say to the charges against you?

    LEWIS: The big fish in this case is former Bell city manager Robert Rizzo , picked up at his luxury home in Huntington Beach , California . He's accused of stealing $4.3 million in public funds .

    Mr. STEVE COOLEY (Los Angeles County District Attorney): Rizzo , acting as the unelected and unaccountable czar of the city of Bell , secretly set his own salary.

    Unidentified Man #2: There you go.

    LEWIS: Rizzo is one of eight Bell city officials, present and former, arrested today. The others are accused of misappropriating $1.2 million. Officers used a battering ram to break down the door of Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez when he delayed coming out.

    Mr. COOLEY: The complaint alleges they used the tax dollars collected from the hard-working citizens of Bell as their own piggy bank, which they then looted at will.

    LEWIS: The district attorney making it clear he's going after anyone involved in this.

    Mr. COOLEY: I would charge my mother if I had evidence against my mother.

    Mayor OSCAR HERNANDEZ: Please, I need respect from everybody. Please.

    LEWIS: The people of Bell stormed city council meetings after learning in July about the six-figure salaries officials were receiving.

    Protesters: Another one bites the dust !

    LEWIS: Today, citizens were elated at news of the arrests.

    Unidentified Man #3: I went like this! Yes! We did it!

    LEWIS: The California attorney general , now making a run for governor, has sued Bell city officials, demanding they give back most of their hefty salaries.

    Mr. JERRY BROWN (California Attorney General): This is something when you see it, you can smell it. And this stinks to high heaven.

    LEWIS: Rizzo and the others are scheduled to be arraigned tomorrow morning. The district attorney says he intends to ask the judge to set bail for Rizzo at $3.6 million. Brian :

    WILLIAMS: George Lewis in Bell , California , tonight to start us off.

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