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Bell crackdowns hand statewide candidates a chance to shine

With less than six weeks until election day, the corruption scandal enveloping the tiny Southern California city of Bell has become the headline-grabbing cause celebre for politicians running statewide.

In the last two weeks, the candidates have descended on Bell:

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Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, the Republican appointed to the post in April who hopes to win the job full time, held a quasi-political pep rally in front of City Hall to sign a new law refunding to residents millions in illegal taxes collected by the city.

Days later, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, nabbed the spotlight by filing a civil action to boot three Bell City Council members from office and force city officials to pay back a slice of their astronomical salaries.

But the biggest splash has gone to Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, the GOP nominee for attorney general. On Tuesday, Cooley stood before a horde of television news cameras to announce that he had filed criminal charges against eight current and former Bell city leaders for allegedly siphoning away millions of dollars from the small, heavily Latino community.

“Sgt. Friday couldn’t have looked more law and order,” said Allan Hoffenblum, whose California Target Book handicaps and analyzes California political races. “It just makes him look qualified for the job. And it’s awfully hard for a down-ballot candidate to get that sort of publicity this close to an election.”

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The attorney for Robert Rizzo, the former Bell city administrator and a beneficiary of the alleged financial malfeasance, accused Cooley of using the Bell investigation to gain an edge over his Democratic rival in the attorney general’s race, San Francisco Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris. Cooley denied that the inquiry or timing of the charges, just weeks away from the Nov. 2 election, had anything to do with the election.

Hoping to take the shine off Cooley’s moment, the Harris campaign Wednesday again criticized Cooley for failing to uncover the Bell scandal sooner.

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Harris campaign spokesman Brian Brokaw said reports show that Cooley’s office received credible tips about possible wrongdoing in Bell in early 2009 but failed to take them seriously until the Los Angeles Times in July revealed the huge salaries and other questionable city spending. (Cooley has denied that contention.)

“It’s better late than never, but it’s becoming very clear that Steve Cooley ignored repeated complaints about corruption in Bell for many months, perhaps years, and he only began this investigation in the midst of his race for attorney general,” Brokaw said.

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Cooley also has been put on the defensive about his long acquaintance with former Bell Police Chief Randy Adams, who was not charged in the criminal complaint. Adams resigned after it was revealed that he earned a salary of $457,000, about 50% more than Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck.

“I’m acquainted with the former police chief.... He was not charged because there was no evidence to charge him. I would charge my mother if I had evidence,” Cooley said at Tuesday’s new conference. “Being paid excessive salaries is not a crime.... To illegally obtain those salaries is a crime.”

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Although some voters may be skeptical of Cooley’s motives, most would probably be grateful, said Jaime Regalado, director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.

“People may say, ‘Yeah, sure there may be some politics behind it, but as far as I’m concerned I’m glad they’re doing it,’ ” Regalado said.

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The crackdown in Bell also has received extensive coverage in the Spanish-language media and should resonate among voters in blue-collar Latino communities who often feel neglected in terms of both government services and the justice system, he said.

Maldonado took advantage of that coverage when, through the fortune of good timing, he was serving as acting governor while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was in Asia. Maldonado came to Bell last week to sign legislation to refund ill-gotten tax money collected by Bell’s leaders — and used the opportunity to bash the city leadership.

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California’s Latino voters are critical of Maldonado in his race against Democrat Gavin Newsom because most statewide Republican candidates have traditionally received scant support from them, said Republican political consultant Mike Madrid in Sacramento.

“Clearly, the more inroads he makes to Latino voters, the more he’s going to make a dent in Newsom’s base,” Madrid said. “In a race like the lieutenant governor’s race, there are very few opportunities to make news.... He has to take advantage of it.”

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phil.willon@latimes.com

Times staff writer Jack Leonard contributed to this report.

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