By Anne Lowe

OPEN GOVERNMENT – Eight City of Bell officials actively conspired to hide their true earnings from the public eye, Attorney General Edmund G. Brown said in a lawsuit suit filed today.

The complaint against the officials alleges that several employment contracts and an e-mail exchange prove they were aware their compensation was excessive and wasteful. Chief Administrative Officer Robert A. Rizzo, Brown said, divided his nearly $800,000 salary among five contracts to “mislead and deceive the public as to his compensation.” Rizzo also issued false salary information in a memo for city staff to give to public inquiries, the complaint alleges.

Pier’angela Spaccia, Bell’s assistant chief administrative officer, was also paid an excessive amount through the use of a deceptive employment contract, the complaint asserts:

Spaccia's contracts with the City were similarly prepared so as to conceal the true extent of her compensation from the public. For example, Rizzo and Spaccia prepared a contract for Spaccia in 2008. Spaccia's 2008 contract does not disclose her salary. Rather, it merely states that she would be paid according to her 2005 contract with the City, and that she was to receive, and did receive, a 20 percent salary increase two months after the effective date of the 2008 contract, and 12 percent annual increases thereafter. 

Rizzo, Spaccia, and (former police chief Randy) Adams' efforts to conceal their true compensation from the public were confirmed in an email exchange between Spaccia and Adams.

In 2009, Spaccia and Adams worked together to prepare Adams' employment contract with the City. In one draft of his contract, Adams inserted a clause specifying the number of pay periods in a year. Spaccia, however, instructed Adams to remove that clause because it could easily be used to calculate his total salary. Spaccia wrote, "[w]e have crafted our Agreements carefully so we do not draw attention to our pay. The word Pay Period is used and not defined in order to protect you from someone taking the time to add up your salary."

Adams agreed to remove the pay period clause from his contract.

City Council members, on the other hand, used ordinances to conceal their pay, the complaint alleges. In 2010, Council members will be paid more than $96,000; Brown contrasted their pay with a state law that mandates council members of a city the size of Bell receive no more than $4,800 per year.

As an illustration, Council Member defendants passed Ordinance No. 1158 in February 2005. The title of the Ordinance states, "AN ORDINANCE OF THE CITY COUNC1L OF THE CITY OF BELL LIMITING COMPENSATION FOR MEMBERS OF THE CITY COUNC1L PURSUANT TO CALIFORN1A GOVERNMENT CODE § 36516(e)." (underline added.)

Rather than limiting the compensation of council members, as the title of the ordinance states, the text of the ordinance actually increased the Council Member defendants' salaries from $673 per month to $1,332 per month~almost doubling their salaries as council members. (And which does not include their salaries for sitting on the boards of various city authorities, agencies, and commissions.)

Upon information and belief, by using a false and misleading title for Ordinance No. 1158, Council Member defendants intended to deceive the public. They were aware that only the title of the ordinance, and not the text, would be published in the agenda and minutes of the relevant city council meetings. Furthermore, Council Member defendants approved Ordinance No. 1158 as part of a consent agenda during the city council meeting so that there was no public discussion or deliberation of the ordinance.

Additionally, the alleged factual basis and purported justification for Ordinance No. 1158 were false. The factual justification of the salary increase provided by Ordinance No. 1 158 was that the Council Member defendants had not received a pay increase since 1991, when, according to the misinformation set out in the 2005 Ordinance No. 1158, they were being paid $673 per month. But this is false. City council members had previously raised their salaries to $673 per month in 2001, not 1991.

In 2001, pursuant to city Ordinance No. 1139, council members had given themselves nine years' worth of cumulative five percent per year salary increase, raising their salaries from $434 per month to $673 per month. The justification for this salary increase in 2001 was that the council member salaries had not been increased since 1992.

When Council Member defendants passed Ordinance No. 1158 in 2005, however, they used the $673 per month salary as the 1991 starting point (but which was actually set in 2001), and used this falsely stated and inflated base salary to increase their salaries by 14 years' worth, rather than four years' worth, of cumulative raises.

Employing such mathematical sleight-of-hand and utilizing false and deceptive information as to their alleged salary in 1991, Council Members thus wrongfully provided themselves with duplicate raises for the nine-year period from 1992 to 2001.

At least defendants Cole and Bello were aware of this deception as they approved both Ordinance No. 1139 and Ordinance No. 1158.

From July 2005 to at least July 2009, Council Member defendants maintained their city council salary steady while increasing their salaries from the various city authorities, agencies, and commissions by approximately 13 percent each year. While the salaries of the Council Member defendants were primarily derived from these authorities and commissions, the Council Member defendants did little or no work for them.

In the suit, Brown is seeking restitution for the amounts overpaid to the eight Bell officials; he also calls for an order to stop all payments to them and for declarations that all of the officials are disqualified from holding public office.

Brown said in a statement released today that he will be conducting a statewide probe that will focus on administrators and managers who receive salaries and pensions that exceed certain thresholds.