Mug shot of Victor Bello
A former Bell City Council member arrested in September on felony charges of misappropriating public funds told investigators more than a year ago that the city was plagued with bribery, voter fraud and "unethical retirement arrangements," according to a letter obtained by California Watch.
The letter from Victor Bello was dated May 6, 2009 – the same day the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office first opened an investigation into the scandal-plagued city. Bello resigned from the council in August 2009.
Among other things, the letter directly alleges wrongdoing by City Manager Robert Rizzo, who also was arrested last month, and contains some of the same allegations that are now coming to light as investigators prepare their case.
L.A. County District Attorney Steve Cooley responded to Bello about two weeks after he sent the letter, asking for more information. Bello responded with further details in mid-June 2009 but heard nothing further from Cooley’s office until nearly nine months later, in March 2010, according to his attorney, Stanley L. Friedman.
"There was no follow-up until March of this year," Friedman said of the letter. "At that point, the (district attorney’s office) investigator came to speak with (Bello), but they didn’t talk to him about anything in the letters."
In criminal complaints [PDFs] filed last month against Bello and seven other defendants in the Bell case, Cooley’s office wrote that they "commenced an investigation of the City of Bell on May 6, 2009, based on a letter signed by a confidential source alleging voter misconduct in the City of Bell."
"During the course of that investigation, District Attorney Investigator Maria Grimaldo conducted an interview of Victor Bello on March 24, 2010," the complaint goes on to read.
That interview touched off an investigation into the extravagant salaries and benefits reaped by public officials there. According to the criminal complaint, Bello told Grimaldo he was paid $100,000 annually as director of a local food bank - the same pay he'd received as a Bell councilman. Soon afterward, Cooley's office requested pay records from the council.
Sandi Gibbons, a spokesman for Cooley’s office, said the district attorney opened an investigation into Rizzo in May 2009 but would not comment on how the investigation began or why investigators did not follow up with Bello until March.
"We received information in May 2009 that caused us to open an inquiry – which turned into an investigation – concerning matters addressed in the letters. As that investigation continued, additional information was obtained," Gibbons wrote in an e-mail.
The unusually high salaries in Bell were first reported in July 2010 by the Los Angeles Times. Bello was arrested Sept. 21, and is expected to be arraigned with the other seven defendants later this month.
Among other things, the Bello letter from 2009 directly accuses Rizzo of corruption, bribery, "underhanded real estate deals," "unethical retirement arrangements," and facilitating police misconduct. From the letter:
The city, however, has been victimized by mismanagement, illegal activity, and corruption. THe City Manager, Mr. Robert Rizzo, has continuously and consistently abused the power entrusted to him. I have witnessed:
- Public corruption
- Underhanded real estate deals
- Unethical retirement arrangements
- Police misconduct, including civil rights violations
Rizzo has since been accused of inflating his pension into the high six figures and boosting pensions for other top city officials, even as retirement benefits for police and firefighters were reduced. His nearly $800,000 salary has become a symbol of the excesses in Bell.
Although the letters were signed by Bello, they were written by a former Bell police sergeant, James Corcoran, who was investigating corruption issues in the city. Corcoran was forced out of the department earlier this year and has since filed a civil suit alleging that he was dismissed in retaliation for his investigation.
Corcoran said he presented the district attorney’s office with evidence of corruption in Bell about two weeks before the May 6, 2009, letter was filed, and an investigator told him that having an elected official sign a formal complaint would lend more weight to the allegations.
Friedman, Bello’s attorney, said Bello did not have direct knowledge of any corruption perpetrated in the city but signed the letters because "he wanted to be a good citizen and representative on the city council."
Bello’s letter and the criminal complaint referencing it provide some of the first clear documentation about the genesis of Cooley’s investigation into the Bell scandal.
Cooley has repeatedly said that his office began looking into Bell’s extravagant salaries in March 2010, but his office has at times hinted that parts of the investigation began sooner.
In an interview last month with the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board, Cooley was asked whether his office should have been "more aware of what was going on in Bell."
"The extent and scope of it was sort of a big surprise, but the fact of the matter is our office was down there in mid-March," Cooley told the editorial board. "They started out investigating an allegation of a conflict of interest with respect to a single transaction. The conversation broadened into … how much these guys get paid."
For Cooley, who is also running for attorney general, the issue has also at times become political. His opponent, San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, has at times tried to make political hay of the timing of the Bell investigation, arguing that his office prioritized Bell for political gain.
Other candidates, including Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Jerry Brown, lieutenant governor candidate Abel Maldonado and State Controller John Chiang have also made public proclamations about corruption in the city or have opened their own highly publicized investigations – a phenomenon that has been well documented by local and national media.