DA probes allegations off-duty police officers tried to influence vote in scandalized CA city

Investigations involving the high pay of leaders in this blue-collar city intensified Tuesday as prosecutors said they were looking into allegations of voter fraud and the state's chief fiscal officer announced he would conduct an audit of spending.

District attorney spokeswoman Jane Robison said her office was looking into claims that off-duty Bell police officers were recruited to distribute absentee ballots in last year's election and tell people which candidates to vote for.

It was only one of several allegations the district attorney is looking into in the city where three top officials resigned last week after it was disclosed they were being paid salaries totaling about $1.6 million a year.

"We do have a full investigation on several fronts," Robison said. She declined to elaborate.

Also Tuesday, state Controller John Chiang arrived in the city of some 40,000 residents, about 17 percent of whom live in poverty, to announce his office is launching an audit of city spending.

If he finds any appearance of wrongdoing, Chiang said, it will be reported to the district attorney and the state attorney general's office.

On Monday, state Attorney General Jerry Brown announced his own investigation, saying he had subpoenaed hundreds of city records.

Chiang said his audit would include a top-to-bottom review of all state and federal funds received by the city. His staff will also conduct a "quality control review" to ensure that private firms hired by the city to audit its books did a proper job and to determine if the city has adequate internal controls to make sure city spending policies are not abused.

"The residents of Bell and the residents of the state of California who are watching what happens here need our help to restore their confidence," Chiang told a news conference. "That starts with transparent accounting."

Interim City Manager Pedro Carillo said the audit would be made public.

Carillo took over last week for ousted City Manager Robert Rizzo, who was forced to resign after it was learned that he was being paid nearly $800,000 a year. Two other paid high-paid officials, the police chief and the assistant city manager, also resigned. Four City Council members who were each making about $100,000 a year voted Monday to cut their pay by 90 percent.

Mayor Oscar Hernandez and Councilman George Mirabal added they would not seek re-election, and Hernandez said he would work for nothing until his term expires.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday that a retired Bell police sergeant had filed a lawsuit claiming off-duty city police officers were recruited to distribute absentee ballots in last year's election and tell people which candidates to vote for.

One Bell resident, Hugo Herrera, told The Associated Press his mother was among those approached by an officer who asked if she would sign a paper showing her support for Hernandez.

When she got to her polling place and attempted to vote, Herrera said, she was told the paper she had signed was actually an absentee ballot. She asked that the ballot be disallowed and that she be allowed to vote for another candidate, adding she never really supported Hernandez but just wanted the officer to go away.

"So they let her vote again," Herrera said. "Who knows if they really counted it."

He said he and his mother reported the incident to the district attorney's office.

Carillo declined to discuss the matter.

"I haven't had the opportunity to review that," he said.

He also declined to say how much he's being paid to replace Rizzo, adding his contract is still being negotiated. He did say it would be substantially less than the $787,636 a year his predecessor was making.

Police Chief Randy Adams, who also resigned, was making $457,000 a year. Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia was receiving $376,288 a year.

The salaries have begun to have a fallout effect on other cities around the state.

On Monday, the Pasadena City Council voted to suspend members' annual cost-of-living pay raises, with one councilman saying the news from Bell reflected badly on city officials all over the United States.

The City Council in Indio cut the salaries of its city manager, police chief and other top officials by 10 percent, saying in these hard economic times it could no longer afford to pay them as much.