Judge probes suit over Calif. city's big salaries

/ Source: The Associated Press

A judge questioned Thursday whether outgoing state Attorney General Jerry Brown has the legal authority to sue eight current and former officials of the scandal-plagued city of Bell over their huge salaries, saying the issue might be better resolved in criminal court.

Brown, who was elected governor Tuesday, filed suit in September accusing the officials of taking salaries that were so far out of line with what they should have been paid that they broke the law.

Among those named in the lawsuit was former Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo who had an annual compensation package of about $1.5 million a year when vacation, insurance and other perks were added to his $787,637 salary.

A week after Brown sued, Rizzo and six of the other seven people named in his suit were charged in criminal court with looting $5.5 million from Bell.

On Thursday, Superior Court Judge Ralph W. Dau told Brown's lawyers the exorbitant salary issue might be best resolved there.

"You say they're looting the city and you can enforce it, but where is the case that says the attorney general can enforce it?" Dau asked. "The basis of your authority is nowhere in your memorandum. So I'm wondering, is this just a political lawsuit?"

Dau gave the attorney general's office 10 days to amend the action, which Brown spokesman Jim Finefrock said the office would do.

Dau also ruled that portions of the suit accusing Rizzo and the others of conflict of interest, squandering public funds and putting their own interests ahead of Bell's could go forward. He denied a request from Rizzo to keep Bell officials from obtaining his private e-mails, ruling the request had been made too late and Bell officials already have the e-mails.

When Brown announced the lawsuit, he said he hoped to recoup hundreds of thousands of dollars in inflated salaries for residents. He acknowledged it was a novel legal approach but said he was confident his office had the authority.

"You can't just take the public's money and give it to yourself or give it to your friendly employees or members of the city council just because you want to," he said at the time.

In addition to Rizzo, the lawsuit names Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez, Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo, Councilman George Mirabal, two former councilmen, former Police Chief Randy Adams and former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia.

Each of the current council members was paying themselves about $100,000 a year, Adams was receiving $457,000 and Spaccia was making $376,288.

Adams, Spaccia and Rizzo were forced to resign after the Los Angeles Times reported their salaries last July. Hernandez, Jacobo and Mirabal face a recall election in March. A fourth highly paid councilman, Luis Artiga, has resigned.

Artiga was not named in Brown's lawsuit but was among the eight charged in criminal court. Adams, who was named in the lawsuit, was not arrested.

All deny wrongdoing.