THE mayor, ex-city manager and six current and former officials of a blue-collar California suburb were headed from jail to court as residents of Bell celebrated their arrest on charges of bilking taxpayers out of $5.5 million (€4.1m).
As mayor Oscar Hernandez, former city manager Robert Rizzo and the others were rounded up during morning raids on their homes, residents across the city honked their car horns and burst into cheers.
The eight were scheduled to be arraigned in court later last night on charges of misappropriating more than $5.5m in public funds.
“They used the tax dollars collected from the hardworking citizens of Bell as their own piggy bank, which they then looted at will,” District Attorney Steve Cooley told a news conference in Los Angeles soon after all eight were taken from their homes in handcuffs.
At City Hall in Bell, where one in six residents lives in poverty, people gathered to laugh and applaud as someone played the Queen song, “Another One Bites the Dust”.
“I got so excited that, oh my God, I couldn’t breathe,” said Violeta Alvarez, who has lived in Bell for 31 years. “I’m excited. I’m happy. I have tears of joy in my eyes.”
Rizzo, who was making nearly $800,000 a year, was booked on 53 counts of misappropriation of public funds and conflict of interest.
Others taken into custody were former assistant city manager Angela Spaccia, vice mayor Teresa Jacobo, council members George Mirabal and Luis Artiga and former council members Victor Bello and George Cole.
At the mayor’s house,police briefly used a battering ram when Hernandez didn’t immediately come to the door.
Spaccia was making $376,288, and four of the five current city council members were paying themselves nearly $100,000 a year.
Authorities said Rizzo made $4.3m by paying himself through different employment contracts that were not approved by the city council. Meanwhile, council members paid themselves a combined $1.25m for what Cooley called “phantom meetings” of various city boards and agencies.
Rizzo also was accused of giving $1.9m in loans to himself, Spaccia, Hernandez, Artiga and dozens of others.
Rizzo, Spaccia and former police chief Randy Adams, who was making $457,000 a year, resigned and the council members reduced their salaries to about $8,000 following the disclosures. Adams was not arrested.
Cooley said there was no evidence the former police chief illegally obtained his $457,000 salary. The figure was $150,000 more than the Los Angeles chief of police gets paid.
“Being paid excessive salaries is not a crime,” Cooley said. “Illegally obtaining those salaries is a crime.”
Cooley said his investigators have pored over more than 60,000 pages of documents and more people could be arrested.
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