Grand jury indicts Robert Rizzo and assistant on new Bell corruption allegations [Updated]
The indictments are the first to come out of the grand jury, which was called to investigate allegations of massive corruption in Bell’s city government. Rizzo and Spaccia and six other current and former Bell officials already were facing dozens of criminal charges stemming from allegations that they looted the city and lined their pocketbooks.
The newest charges -- unsealed Wednesday -- are related to Rizzo and Spaccia's roles in creating generous supplemental retirement packages for themselves. An early letter from the grand jury to the defendants suggested that the package benefited the two officials more than any other city employees and constituted a conflict of interest.
The Times first reported in September that the city had a supplemental plan that allowed employees to circumvent retirement limits set by California. An employee who worked in Bell for 25 years at age 55 could get 90% of their salary -- far more than most public employees who retire at age 60. Under this scenario, Rizzo's pension could have been close to $1 million annually.
The grand jury also indicted the pair on charges of creating false documents to hide the true salary of Bell Police Chief Randy Adams. Adams became the highest paid police official in the nation when he was hired by Bell, earning an annual salary of $457,000. He has not been charged in the corruption case.
[Updated at 10:10 a.m.: Both Rizzo and Spaccia pleaded not guilty to the new charges and denied all allegations. Judge Patricia M. Schnegg set their next court date for May 3, the same day as two other Bell cases. Their bail was set at $200,000 each, but both Spaccia and Rizzo were released on their own recognizance.
Spaccia's attorney, Russell Petti, said Spaccia was not involved in Adams' contract. "Ms. Spaccia was not even working in the city of Bell at the time -- she was over in Maywood," Petti said. "I have no idea how anyone thinks she could've been involved in that."
Rizzo's attorney, James Spertus, said he planned to seek a change of venue.
He said the grand jury indictment was not a sure thing -- because it operates in secrecy and the defense is not allowed to present any evidence.]
Since The Times reported last summer that Rizzo's salary was $787,000 and that council members were earning $100,000, often for attending meetings that rarely or never held, eight current and former city officials have been arrested in a massive corruption sweep. Voters last month overwhelming recalled four of the five council members. Lorenzo Velez, the only Bell councilman not charged in the case, was not reelected.
Local, state and federal authorities continue to investigate the tiny southeast Los Angeles County city, which also illegally raised taxes and overcharged residents nearly $6 million. Most recently, the district attorney's office said last week that it had opened an inquiry into an unusual redevelopment deal in Bell. The city bought land for $1.35 million -- more than twice its assessed value. The seller was required to make a $425,000 "charitable donation" back to the city, but the money is unaccounted for, records show.
L.A. County Superior Court Judge Henry J. Hall has already ordered th eight Bell officials to stand trial on various charges -- and even suggested that the district attorney consider adding a few more charges.
"The allegations are, in my opinion, appalling," Hall said in February at the end of one of the preliminary hearings. "These people may not be involved in the running of that city in any shape or form." In another ruling, he described the actions of Bell officials as a "massive ongoing conspiracy to enrich themselves" and also referred to Rizzo's salary as "obscene."
-- Jeff Gottlieb and Corina Knoll in Los Angeles County Superior Court
Photo: Former Bell City Administrator Robert Rizzo, right, with his attorney James Spertus plead not guilty to grand jury indictments related to a plan to boost his retirement benefits, marking new allegations in the sweeping public corruption scandal at the Criminal Courts Building. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times