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Bell’s piggies deserve a pen

Capitol Journal

The writer of a letter to The Times had an appealing idea about how to handle the greedy Bell bunch: Tar and feather them and run ‘em out of town.

But that suggestion by Bruce Savage of Palm Desert would not suffice.

Better wait and see whether Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley and state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown can catch up with the gluttonous gang.

Perhaps the law can recapture the taxpayers’ money. Maybe even void the unconscionable public pension entitlements. Then issue jumpsuits and ship these piggy people off to some crowded public housing with concertina wire and guard towers.

The arrogant, idiotic comment that keeps reverberating in my mind is the first one uttered by former Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo in the initial Times article disclosing his absurd $787,637 salary.

“If that’s a number people choke on, maybe I’m in the wrong business,” Rizzo said. “I could go into private business and make that money.”

Here’s hoping he goes into the pen and makes pennies an hour working the laundry detail or mopping bathrooms.

I don’t care if he and his fellow conspirators haven’t been charged, let alone convicted. They’re guilty of ripping off vulnerable, uninformed taxpayers in one of the county’s poorest cities, exploiting their public trust and, sadly, apathy.

Moreover — not to get overly patriotic about it — they have further undermined our democratic institutions. It’s almost treasonous. The public already is acutely cynical about elected representatives. And these Bell bozos just confirmed a lot of people’s darkest suspicions.

They’ve made it even harder for Democratic legislators — and any Republicans who might be thinking about it — to push taxpayers into digging deeper for schools or law enforcement or any other worthy cause when public money is seen being flushed into a Rizzo rat hole.

Let’s recap the larceny:

• Rizzo’s base pay in that city of only 37,000 was nearly twice the president’s and 41/2 times the governor’s. But, as it turned out, his actual total compensation was even much higher, $1.5 million.

• The former police chief, Randy Adams, was hauling off $457,000 a year, about 50% more than the L.A. police chief. The assistant city manager, Angela Spaccia, was being paid $376,000, nearly 50% more than the L.A. city chief executive.

• As Times reporters kept digging, they found seven more Bell city employees making between $230,000 and $423,000.

• Part-time City Council members were knocking down about $100,000 until forced by public outrage to reduce their take by 90%.

• The indefensible salaries will lead to gargantuan pensions, headed by Rizzo’s $600,000-plus, unless they can be voided.

Perhaps Cooley and Brown can nail the culprits. They’re probing, subpoenaing, deposing — looking for possible election fraud, conflicts of interest, illegal secret meetings, fake meetings that council members took money for supposedly attending, conspiracy, forgery, theft.

They’re searching for evidence that the loot was illegally authorized.

I wouldn’t bet against Cooley. He has a track record of prosecuting and convicting municipal scum, having fought it in 28 of the county’s 88 cities.

“We’ve put a lot of people in prison,” he told me. “We’ve spent a lot of time down there in the corridor of corruption — Southeast L.A.”

Bell, Cooley said, “is a whole poster child of potential public corruption, ranging from the electoral process through the ultimate sin of theft of public funds.”

Meantime, there’s stirring in Sacramento to make sure that this sort of egregious pocketbook-lining can’t occur again.

It is tempting to say “It’s about time.” But the Bell battering of the senses was needed to combat the natural conservative resistance against Big Brother in Sacramento dictating even more to local governments.

The legislative effort is being led by Democratic Assemblyman Hector De La Torre, who as a South Gate city councilman joined Republican D.A. Cooley in helping to clean up corrupt South Gate a decade ago.

De La Torre and Sen. Louis Correa (D- Santa Ana) are sponsoring bills to tax excessive council pay, penalize cities that provide it and shine more light on all salaries, benefits and perks — requiring that they be posted for the public when proposed, acted on in open meetings and annually disclosed.

“The crooks will always find a way if they think no one’s watching,” De La Torre says. And paraphrasing bank robber Willie Sutton, he adds: “Why do they rip off the taxpayers? That’s where the money is. Particularly in low-informed communities.”

State Treasurer Bill Lockyer wants the California Public Employees’ Retirement System to produce an annual public report comparing local officials’ salaries around the state.

Pension officials were asleep or indifferent four years ago when they learned of Bell’s extravagant pay raises and did nothing to stop them.

It would be wrong to cast Bell as a symbol of widespread corruption in California government. But the sleaze does highlight public pay and pension excesses throughout the state, ranging from spiked salaries for fire chiefs to exorbitant compensation for university chancellors.

Public pensions should be capped at $100,000. An estimated 18,000 state and local public pensioners are drawing more than that in retirement pay, according to Marcia Fritz, a pension reformer. At least half are retired public safety personnel, she says.

In that initial Times article, a second offensive comment was uttered by the Bell assistant city manager, Spaccia: “I would have to argue you get what you pay for.”

Tell that to the average Bell taxpayer who’s earning $30,000.

Let’s hope that Spaccia and her cronies get what they deserve.

george.skelton@latimes.com


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