Bell’s Rizzo and aide made even more than suspected, witness testifies

Lourdes Garcia, Bell's former financial officer, is shown in 2010. She is currently a key witness in the corruption trial of Angela Spaccia, an aide to former administrator Robert Rizzo. Lourdes said they padded their pay with special vacation and sick leave funds.
(Irfan Kahn / Los Angeles Times)

Through a secret arrangement to double his generous vacation and sick day allotments, former Bell administrator Robert Rizzo was actually making at least $1.18 million, much more than has previously been reported, a trial witness said Friday.

Rizzo and his top aide, Angela Spaccia, drew up a document awarding themselves 33 hours of vacation time every two weeks and each actually drew two paychecks, one for the salaries and the second for the vacation and sick time payouts, Lourdes Garcia, the city’s former finance officer, testified.


She said the arrangement essentially gave each of them a 50% pay boost.

Before they were forced from their jobs in the money scandal that enveloped the small, working-class town, Rizzo and Spaccia were among the top paid municipal officials in California. Rizzo is now facing a probable 10- to 12-year prison term after pleading no contest to dozens of corruption-related charges early this month, and Spaccia is standing trial on 13 felony counts.

In testimony Friday, Garcia said Rizzo called her into his office in 2007 and said he was considering a special formula to increase vacation and sick day accrual for himself and Spaccia.

Garcia said that when she brought him a draft, Rizzo told her he didn’t want their titles or names on the document. She revised it so that Rizzo was identified only as 1.1 and Spaccia as 1.3.

The City Council later approved the arrangement as part of a larger resolution about benefits for nonunion employees.

Less than six months later, Garcia testified, Rizzo brought the council another resolution, this time bumping paid time off even higher, giving each of them nearly a week of vacation for every two weeks worked.

Later that year, Garcia testified, Rizzo and Spaccia began collecting two paychecks. No other city employees were allowed to cash out their sick and vacation time as they were accumulating it, she said. With the vacation and sick time payouts, Spaccia was earning $564,000 annually.

Garcia, who was being compensated more than $400,000 a year, testified under a grant of immunity from the district attorney. She previously testified in the trial of six former Bell council members also charged in the corruption case. All but one were convicted on some charges.

According to their contracts, Rizzo’s final base salary was $787,637 a year and Spaccia’s $376,288, numbers that stunned government experts when The Times published them. But with the regular vacation payouts, they actually earned far more, Garcia said.

Garcia said she assumed the city attorney had reviewed the council resolution that contained the vacation increases and that Rizzo told staff members that he would discuss changes with council members.

“Did you assume the City Council was voting on things they never read?” Garcia was asked by Spaccia’s attorney, Harland Braun.

“Probably,” she said.

When the full force of the recession hit in 2008 and it appeared that Rizzo and his top assistants might be forced to take a pay cut to keep the city out of the red, Garcia said, Rizzo told them that he would find a way to improve city finances.

Several weeks later, on Christmas Eve, he laid off 40 part-time employees, she said.

Rizzo’s attorney has said that he expects his client and Spaccia to face federal charges of conspiracy to commit tax fraud.

Garcia also testified that after the scandal broke in July 2010 and Rizzo was put on leave, he called her from home and told her to put $500,000 into the city’s special retirement plan that had been established for him and Spaccia. The plan, which had never been funded, was set up in addition to their existing retirement plans with the state pension system.

She said she consulted the city attorney, who told her not to take any more orders from Rizzo.

Spaccia, who is charged with misappropriation of public funds, conflict of interest and hiding and falsifying government records, has been portrayed by her attorney as a victim of an administrator who ran the city like a dictator.

Rizzo, through his attorney, said Spaccia was the mastermind of the wrongdoing in Bell, and he said he would be willing to testify against her.