5 convicted Bell leaders sue former city attorney

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Five former leaders of the city of Bell who were convicted in a municipal fraud scandal sued their former city attorney Friday, saying he led them to believe they were doing nothing wrong when they accepted six-figure salaries to run a modest Los Angeles suburb.

The former members of the Bell City Council were convicted last year of stealing taxpayer money and using it to pay themselves huge salaries to operate the small, blue-collar suburb where more than a quarter of residents live below the poverty line.

Specifically, the council members were found guilty of creating a separate municipal entity, the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, that evidence showed never recycled anything and that prosecutors said existed only to inflate their salaries.

In their lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, the five accused the firm Best, Best & Krieger and one of its former partners, Edward W. Lee, of failing to "exercise proper care and skill" when it came to advising them on such legal matters as forming the recycling board and several other municipal agencies from which they collected salaries.

"None of them are attorneys or accountants, so they relied on their legal adviser, who was Mr. Lee and his law firm," said attorney Stanley L. Friedman, who represents former Mayor Oscar Hernandez.

The action seeks unspecified damages.

Last year, Best, Best & Krieger paid the city of Bell $2.5 million to settle a similar lawsuit.

The firm said Friday it had just seen the latest action and could not discuss specifics, but said it plans to "vigorously" defend itself.

"We believe it is a frivolous attempt to deflect the spotlight from their own actions," the firm said in a statement.

The Bell council members were arrested in September 2010, months after it was revealed that former Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo had an annual salary and compensation package of $1.5 million; Rizzo's top assistant, Angela Spaccia, was making $564,000 a year; and Hernandez and the other four council members were getting about $100,000 a year.

Prosecutors said the officials bilked the city of $5.5 million to keep giving themselves raises. Former District Attorney Steve Cooley called the case "corruption on steroids."

Rizzo has since pleaded guilty to tax fraud charges and no contest to dozens of other criminal charges and is awaiting sentencing. Spaccia was convicted last year of fraud and misappropriation of public funds and is awaiting sentencing.

Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo, George Cole, George Mirabal and Victor Bello face a possible retrial on other charges for which jurors couldn't reach a verdict last year. However, prosecutors have offered a deal to resolve those charges that would bring sentences ranging from probation to four years in prison. They have until next month to accept the offer.

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