The City of Bell: The Never-Ending Scandal

From left: Former Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez, former council member Luis Artiga, former Assistant City Administrator Angela Spaccia and former Bell City Administrator Robert Rizzo in L.A. Superior Court in February  2011. | IRFAN KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

Just when you thought the tales of bad behavior coming out of the city of Bell had come to an end, the scandals just keep on coming. The Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), the state's political watchdog, is now investigating incidents involving former Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo, former Mayor Oscar Hernandez and former City Councilman Luis Artiga.

The FPPC is smartly focusing its efforts on significant violations of the Political Reform Act. With limited resources the FPPC is initiating investigations and putting resources towards the larger potential violations of the act that could truly threaten the integrity of the political and electoral processes.

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Unfortunately, the scandal-plagued city of Bell is proving to be a fertile ground for necessary inquiries and actions by the FPPC. Specifically, the commission is investigating potential significant violations of conflict-of-interest and gift laws. One focus, among other things, are Rizzo-funded trips to his Washington state horse ranch. According to allegations, the former city manager apparently paid for plane tickets for Hernandez (plus his girlfriend and her three children) and Artiga to travel up to his horse ranch.

You may ask how Rizzo could afford to own a horse ranch and pick up the tab for visitors. Well, during his time as Bell's City Manager Rizzo made, at one point, $1.5 million per year. That will no doubt buy a number of plane tickets to a horse ranch. Rizzo may be the poster child for bad behavior, but he was not alone. During his tenure council members were paid $100,000 per year to perform, at best, part-time work.

The FPPC has charged Artiga with violating conflict of interest rules by voting to fire Rizzo a few months after traveling to his horse farm, and receiving gifts from Rizzo over the annual limit of $420. The FPPC is investigating Hernandez for the same behavior.
The commission is not the first agency to investigate the city of Bell, and likely will not be the last. Eight former city officials have already been charged with criminal offenses. Among those eight former officials are Rizzo, Hernandez and Artiga.

If there is one silver lining to the entire Bell scandal, it is that the behavior of the former city officials appears to be the exception rather than the rule. It is also nice to see our state's watchdog agency focusing on the big violations that most threaten our political system.

Jessica Levinson writes about the intersection of law and government in Los Angeles every week. She is a Visiting Professor at Loyola Law School. Read more of her posts here.

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