Bell City Manager, Former State Senator Charged in Public Corruption Scheme

The City of Bell is back in the headlines again, eleven years after the largest public corruption scandal in state history.

Bell City Manager Paul Philips, former state Sen. Frank Hill (R-Whittier), attorney Anthony Bouza, and a La Jolla-based developer named William Barkett were all charged in a public corruption case involving a failed solar farm project for the City of Industry last week. The four men are accused of embezzling $20 million in public funds.

The alleged crimes took place when Phillips was the top administrator for the City of Industry.

“The City of Industry advanced $20 million to Barkett’s company, San Gabriel Valley Water and Power, between 2016 and 2018 to build a 450-megawatt solar project in the rolling hills between Diamond Bar and Chino Hills, both of which opposed the development over environmental concerns, according to court documents. But the project never broke ground and the money was never paid back,” the Los Angeles Times reports.

“Amid growing concerns over the stalled project, the City of Industry terminated its lease with the developer in 2018, according to court papers.”

Prosecutors say Barkett used around $8.3 million as his personal piggy bank. He then changed or falsified invoices to cover up his misdeeds. He’s been charged with embezzlement, money laundering, grand theft, and misappropriation of public funds.

As Industry’s then city manager, Philips oversaw the project’s negotiations. He’s been charged with one count of misappropriation of public funds. His attorney Steve Cooley (that Steve Cooley?) says he is innocent. He posted $25,000 bail on Friday and is expected to enter a plea Sept. 10.

Hill and Bouza are both facing conflict-of-interest charges. Bouza is also facing a charge of misappropriation of public funds. Hill — who was sentenced to four years in prison as part of a public corruption case in 1994 — is now being represented by former Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. He too is maintaining his client’s innocence.

Phillips’ arrest is a grim case of déjà vu for Bell. The city’s reputation has never fully recovered from the massive corruption scandal that landed several of its former city officials in jail. The City of Industry is no stranger to scandal either. A 2015 audit found the city had doled out more than $326 million to companies owned by former Mayor Dave Perez and his family over a 20-year period. A state audit in 2016 also blasted Industry for “non-existent” accounting controls. It found millions of dollars paid to city contractors with no tracking of the funds and lavish expenses by Industry officials charged to city credit cards.

“Public corruption erodes the trust of our citizenry and hampers progress,” Dist. Atty. George Gascón of this week’s arrests. “There is no place for it in Los Angeles County.”