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8 Bell officials to face judge for corruption

LOS ANGELES -- The mayor, the ex-city manager and six current and former officials of Bell were headed from jail to court Wednesday as residents of the modest, working-class suburb celebrated their arrest on charges of bilking taxpayers out of US$5.5 million.

As former City Manager Robert Rizzo, Mayor Oscar Hernandez and the others were rounded up during Tuesday morning raids on their homes, residents across the city honked their car horns, burst into cheers and staged impromptu celebrations.

The eight were scheduled to be arraigned in court Wednesday on charges of misappropriating more than US$5.5 million in public funds.

“They used the tax dollars collected from the hardworking citizens of Bell as their own piggy bank, which they then looted at will,” District Attorney Steve Cooley told a news conference in Los Angeles soon after all eight were taken from their homes in handcuffs.

At City Hall in Bell, where one in six residents lives in poverty, people gathered to laugh and applaud as someone played the Queen song “Another One Bites the Dust.”

“I got so excited that, oh my God, I couldn't breathe,” said Violeta Alvarez, who has lived in Bell for 31 years. “I'm excited. I'm happy. I have tears of joy in my eyes.”

Rizzo, who was making nearly US$800,000 a year, was booked on 53 counts of misappropriation of public funds and conflict of interest. Messages left at his home and with his attorney were not returned.

Others taken into custody were former assistant city manager Angela Spaccia, Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo, council members George Mirabal and Luis Artiga and former council members Victor Bello and George Cole.

“I seen them take out Mirabal in handcuffs,” longtime resident Hassan Mourad said after the arrests. “I seen them drag him out.”

At the mayor's house, police briefly used a battering ram when Hernandez didn't immediately come to the door.

Spaccia was making US$376,288, and four of the five current City Council members were paying themselves nearly US$100,000 a year.

Authorities said Rizzo made US$4.3 million by paying himself through different employment contracts that were not approved by the City Council. Meanwhile, council members paid themselves a combined US$1.25 million for what Cooley called “phantom meetings” of various city boards and agencies.

Rizzo also was accused of giving US$1.9 million in loans to himself, Spaccia, Hernandez, Artiga and dozens of others.

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