LOS ANGELES – The California attorney general's office sued eight current and former officials of the scandal-ridden city of Bell on Wednesday, accusing them of defrauding taxpayers by granting themselves salaries so high they were illegal and a disgrace to public service.
The suit demands the officials, including former City Manager Robert Rizzo, return hundreds of thousands of dollars they were paid to run the small, working-class city where one in six people live in poverty.
It also demands the reduction of bloated pension benefits that were based on the high salaries.
The salary scandal sparked nationwide outrage and calls for cities of all sizes to publicly disclose what employees are paid.
Rizzo's salary was $787,637 a year — nearly double that of President Barack Obama. Bell police Chief Randy Adams, who later resigned, was paid $150,000 more than the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.
"You can't just take the public's money and give it to yourself or give it to your friendly employees or members of the city council just because you want to," said Attorney General Jerry Brown, a candidate for governor. "There's a standard and that standard is that the pay must be commensurate with the duty and the work."
Brown called the Bell salaries "enormous and obscene" and not anywhere in line with those paid to officials in most cities of comparable size.
Rizzo's attorney James Spertus said his client believes he did nothing wrong.
"His contracts were presented by the City Council and countersigned by the city attorney, and he acted openly and transparently when he interacted with the city," Spertus said, adding the council kept raising Rizzo's pay to retain him.
The Bell case prompted Brown to launch a statewide investigation of public employee salaries. On Wednesday, his office issued a subpoena ordering the small, neighboring city of Vernon to produce its employee compensation records.
Those records "may pertain to possible violations of various state laws and the waste and misuse of public funds," the subpoena stated.
The Los Angeles Times has reported that the former administrator in Vernon, an industrial city with only about 90 residents, was paid more than $1 million a year.
Brown's office and the Los Angeles County district attorney opened investigations after learning Bell had some of the highest-paid officials in the nation. The city of 40,000 also faces a federal probe into whether it violated the civil rights of Hispanics by deliberately targeting their cars for towing to raise revenue.
Along with Rizzo and Adams, those named in the lawsuit were former assistant city manager Angela Spaccia; council members Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal; and former council members Victor Bello and George Cole.
Phone messages left for the council members were not immediately returned, but the city of Bell issued a statement saying officials were reviewing the lawsuit.
"The city continues to work diligently to uncover information, public documents, and actions taken by the former administration and make any findings available to the public," the brief statement said.
Rizzo's salary was raised by the council 16 times since 1993, with an average increase of 14 percent a year, according to Brown. In 2005 alone, the council boosted his salary 47 percent.
Spaccia was paid $376,288 a year, and Adams was making $457,000 a year.
Four of Bell's five City Council members were paid nearly $100,000 a year before they took a recent cut. Cities of similar size pay their council members about $5,000 a year.
Bell Councilman Luis Artiga was not named in the lawsuit, even though he also was highly paid. Brown declined to say why he was not a defendant.
Artiga and the other three council members are the targets of a recall campaign. On Tuesday, Artiga announced his support for the recall and said he would resign from the council if the others did.
A leader of the recall, Ali Saleh, said his organization was pleased with Wednesday's developments but also wants to see the district attorney bring criminal charges.
"We want some of them in jail," Saleh said.
Associated Press Writer Greg Risling contributed to this report.