L.A. County grand jury serves subpoenas seeking thousands of documents from Bell

A Los Angeles County grand jury has served subpoenas seeking thousands of documents and financial records from the city of Bell as two investigations into the city’s salary scandal intensified Monday.

The subpoenas come two weeks after Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley announced a wide-ranging investigation into the high salaries the city paid local officials, possible improper business dealings and allegations of voter fraud.

It’s unclear exactly what documents the grand jury is seeking. Several sources told The Times they were unsure whether prosecutors received all of the records as of Monday,

The California attorney general’s office announced Monday that it had issued a new round of subpoenas to force nine current and former Bell officials to give depositions and to turn over federal and state income tax returns.

Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown is also demanding personal records relating to pay and pension benefits, gifts the officials have received, and documents pertaining to bank accounts and business interests. Two weeks ago, his office demanded records from Bell City Hall, but this marks the first indication that the attorney general was also looking at the actions of individual city officials as well.

Brown said the subpoenas involved several City Council members as well as former City Manager Robert Rizzo, whose nearly $800,000 salary sparked widespread outrage and prompted him to resign. The Times reported Sunday that when benefits were added, Rizzo’s total compensation for this year would have topped $1.5 million.

The attorney general also said Monday that his probe was expanding to include the city’s former law firm, Best, Best and Krieger, which also received subpoenas. The city last week ended its contract with the lawyers. Shortly thereafter, a longtime city attorney, Edward Lee, who worked for Best, Best and Krieger, announced that he was leaving the firm. A spokeswoman for Best, Best and Krieger said the firm had received the subpoena and is “assisting in any way we can.”

If the investigation finds evidence of wrongdoing, Brown said, prosecutors would “take action in weeks, not months.”

State prosecutors plan to depose the Bell officials Aug. 19 and 20.

Cooley, who is running for attorney general, and Brown, who is running for governor, both appear to be looking into similar activities in Bell. But so far, their investigations appear to be following independent tracks.

Bell’s new interim city attorney said Saturday that the city was launching its own investigation into the high salaries and benefits paid to Rizzo and other top officials.

Documents obtained over the weekend showed that Rizzo was making about double the $787,000 previously reported. His total compensation, according to city documents, was supposed to total more than $1.5 million this year, which included $387,786 a year for vacation and sick time.

The documents show that the city would pay $48,996 annually into Rizzo’s deferred compensation plan and $20,496 into his 457 plan, which is similar to a 401(k) for government employees.

These retirement funds were in addition to his public employee pension, with the city paying his contribution. A Times analysis estimated that Rizzo would collect an annual pension of more than $600,000 upon retirement.

The records show that when the benefits package is included, former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia’s $376,288 salary more than doubles, to $845,960, and ex-Police Chief Randy Adams’ annual pay jumps from $457,000 to $770,046.

Late last week, Bell released documents showing that lower-level city officials also had extraordinarily high salaries, with two department heads receiving compensation of more than $400,000 annually and several other employees earning more than $200,000.

City Council members are being investigated for the nearly $100,000-a-year salaries they were receiving for their part-time jobs. As a result of the anger directed at them by Bell residents, the council members voted to cut their pay by 90%.

In addition to compensation and salaries, Brown said Monday that he was expanding his probe to include allegations of election fraud involving absentee ballots.

The Times last week reported allegations from Bell voters that city officials walked door to door telling them how to vote on their absentee ballots, filled out ballots for some voters and picked up completed ballots from others, all in apparent violation of the state election code.

“We’ve got some reports of improper and possibly illegal electioneering,” Brown said. “If in fact the election itself has been tainted by improper electioneering or other violations of state law, that involves civil or maybe criminal action, and in some circumstances can overturn the election itself.”

The office established a toll-free hotline for people who may have had absentee ballots picked up by Bell officials. The number is (866) 625-4400.