The city of Bell is a small blue-collar community in southern Los Angeles County whose top officials were discovered to be earning among the highest municipal salaries in the United States. Five of them, including the former mayor, face multiple counts of misappropriation of public funds, conflict of interest and other corruption charges.
Last week, former assistant city manager Angela Spaccia was on trial. For a small-time administrator of a hardscrabble town, Spaccia made a killing, her annual income maxing out at $564,000.
That's more than the salary of the president of the United States.
She must miss what was undeniably a very sweet gig. "[In testimony] Spaccia pointed out that although she worked in Bell from 2003 through 2010, there was about a year and a half total when she never showed up to work … during these absences, she acknowledged, she was still paid her full salary. Not only was she never docked a sick or vacation day, she continued accruing more days off," reports The Times' Jeff Gottlieb.
Spaccia candidly admitted that her salary for the "last two or three years" was "twice what I needed to be paid." But defense attorney Harland Braun argued that there was nothing wrong with that. "Everyone's greedy," Braun told jurors. "Everyone takes money. There's no crime in taking too much money. It may be excessive. The issue is whether this is criminal conduct. Ethically, she basically accepted the money, and looking back on it, it looked like it was way too much money and she was also very preoccupied with personal problems, but she recognizes it. How many of you have turned down an excessive raise?"
Like everyone else, I can't imagine what Spaccia and her co-defendants were thinking back then. Then again, as a contrarian who tries to think outside the box, I see Braun's point. Maybe there ought to be salary caps on public paychecks, but there weren't and there aren't. Self-restraint is voluntary.
Then I got to thinking about pay in the broader context.
Average CEO pay for 2011 and 2012 has run $9.6 million and $9.7 million, respectively — and this was in the middle of a brutal recession that cost millions of Americans their jobs. The average chief executive earns 354 times the pay of an average American worker.
When you consider that ratio in other countries like France (104), Australia (93) and Japan (67), it seems pretty obvious that greed is indeed the American way.
Follow Ted Rall on Twitter @TedRall