How were the five city council members in the poor city of Bell (pop. 35,477) supposed to know that their bloated $100,000 salaries were illegally inflated?
The ex-council members’ answer to that question, considered rhetorical by some observers, is former City Attorney Edward W. Lee. So last week they sued him and his firm, Best Best & Krieger, for failing to properly advise them that they were breaking the law.
Attorney Stanley L. Friedman, representing former Mayor Oscar Hernandez (who also sat on the council), told the Associated Press, “None of them are attorneys or accountants, so they relied on their legal adviser.”
Lee served as city attorney in a number of small municipalities. Best Best & Krieger paid the city of Bell $2.5 million to settle a similar lawsuit last year.
Former District Attorney Steve Cooley called the Bell scandal “corruption on steroids.”
The city officials were paid big bucks—in addition to their meager salaries—to attend meetings of sham boards that rarely, if ever, actually met. An audit by the Office of the State Controller found the city had illegally raised property taxes, business license fees and other sources of revenue to pay them.
Ex-council members Hernandez, George Mirabal, Teresa Jacobo, George Cole and Victor Bello, were arrested in September 2010 and convicted on 21 counts of misappropriating public funds. Ex-Councilman Luis Artiga, a pastor, was acquitted.
The trial staggered to a close in March 2013 with an exasperated Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy declaring “all hell has broken loose” before declaring a mistrial on dozens of criminal counts. The council members still face possible retrial over those charges.
At the time, they all blamed former City Manager Robert Rizzo, considered by prosecutors to be the architect of long-running plans to bilk the blue-collar, Southern California town out of millions of dollars. Rizzo, whose annual compensation package totaled $1.5 million, pleaded guilty to tax fraud charges and no contest to dozens of other charges. His chief deputy, Angela Spaccia, was paid $564,000 and was convicted of fraud and misappropriation of public funds. Both are awaiting sentencing.