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Bell sues ex-councilman, foundation and construction firm over payouts

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One target of a Bell lawsuit is a construction firm paid $3.2 million without a contract or council approval
Bell, in a lawsuit, seeks most of the yearly salary of former City Councilman Luis Artiga

Continuing efforts to recover money lost during the years of scandal, Bell has sued a former councilman, a steelworker foundation and a construction company for millions of dollars it says they received illegally when former City Manager Robert Rizzo ran the town.

The biggest target in the suit is McCullah Construction Co. of Bell Gardens, which was paid $3.2 million from 2005-10, most of it authorized by Rizzo without a contract or council approval.

According to the lawsuit, emails show that in early 2009, McCullah also worked on Rizzo's Huntington Beach home.

"The emails include statements about McCullah and Rizzo 'making up' payments as they go along and leaving the scope of work done at Rizzo's home blank," the lawsuit said.

Steve Onstot, an attorney for Bell, said he was continuing to investigate whether the city in essence paid McCullah for the work on Rizzo's home.

Asked about the allegations, Herb E. McCullah Jr., owner of the company, replied, "They can say anything they want." His attorney did not return a call seeking comment or respond to an email.

Rizzo's attorney, James Spertus, has said his client paid for the home remodeling with his own money.

The city also is suing former Councilman Luis Artiga for repayment of most of his yearly salary, and the National Steelworkers Oldtimers Foundation — which was run for years by then-Councilman George Cole — alleging excessive payments it received for transportation of the elderly.

The suit says that Rizzo, Artiga and Cole violated state conflict-of-interest laws.

Rizzo began his 12-year prison term last month after pleading no contest to 69 counts of corruption. Cole, along with four other former council members, pleaded no contest to two counts of misappropriating public funds as part of a deal with the district attorney. He faces a maximum of four years in state prison when he is sentenced July 23.

Artiga, a minister, is the only one of the eight Bell officials charged with corruption who was acquitted.

The lawsuit says that Artiga was paid $191,651 during his 18 months on the council — $183,575 more than the legal limit. Council members were convicted of boosting their salaries by being paid for sitting on city boards that met seldom, if ever.

"I didn't vote for [the council salaries], I didn't approve it," Artiga said. "It's not my fault. How could I have known?"

The suit also alleges that Bell paid the National Steelworkers Oldtimers Foundation, based in Fontana, $87,120 it was not entitled to from 2006-08. The suit said Rizzo approved the payments, not the City Council, a violation of the city charter and government code.

The suit says that Cole, the foundation's chief executive, took part in the negotiations.

Steve Madison, the group's lawyer, said that the payments were cost-of-living adjustments that were properly approved and that audits did not identify any problems.

jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com

Twitter: @gottliebjeff

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