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Ex-Glendale police chief offered disability pension from Bell

January 20, 2012

More than half of the disability retirements awarded to police officers under former Bell City Administrator Robert Rizzo — including those given to three police chiefs — should not have been granted, and workers' compensation settlements for 13 officers were "exceedingly large," an investigation has concluded.

As a result of those awards, the officers could receive millions of dollars in extra benefits. The advantage of a disability retirement is that only half of the pension is taxed; workers' compensation settlements are tax free.

The city investigation was prompted by the state retirement system after the Los Angeles Times inquired about allegations that one of L.A. County's poorest cities had used disability and workers' compensation to provide bonus pay to police chiefs Rizzo had forced out. The California Public Employees' Retirement System asked Bell to investigate.

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The Times reported that in at least two instances, the city wrapped severance and unused vacation and sick time into the workers' comp settlements, which experts said violated tax laws.

Rizzo and seven other officials in the financially strained town have been accused of draining the city treasury by paying themselves enormous salaries, handing out generous pensions and lending city money to employees and businesses.

David Thomas, the attorney who conducted the city's investigation, said that if CalPERS arrives at the same conclusion as the city, he expects it will refer the matter to the district attorney. It is unclear whether the awards and settlements can be rolled back.

A CalPERS spokesman said the agency will conduct its own investigation. "If we believe the pensions were improperly awarded, we will take all steps necessary to recover the money, including referring the issues to the appropriate authorities for further investigation," spokesman Brad Pacheco said in an email.

The Times has also reported that the Internal Revenue Service is investigating.

In an email, Bell Mayor Ali Saleh called the retirement packages "another example of Rizzo's shameless disregard for Bell residents."

Because Bell is self-insured, the cost of the worker's comp settlements falls on the city.

In a four-page letter to CalPERS last week, Thomas said his investigation was "nothing short of a revelation." He said that the disability retirements were not justified in seven of the 13 cases, including those awarded to former chiefs Michael Chavez, Andreas Probst and Dennis Tavernelli.

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