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Attorney general's lawsuit against Bell officials could be in jeopardy; Rizzo's attorney says case is 'dead'

November 4, 2010 |  1:16 pm


Portions of a sweeping lawsuit alleging that eight current and former Bell city leaders conspired to misappropriate millions of dollars from the city will have to be revised in order for the lawsuit to go forward, a judge ruled Thursday.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ralph W. Dau questioned whether the suit, filed at the height of Atty Gen. Jerry Brown’s run for governor, was more about politics than law.

Dau, at a hearing Thursday, warned that although he was not ruling at this stage on the underlying right of the attorney general to seek compensation from city officials, the state's case could be flawed.

Among other things, the suit seeks an order to nullify the contracts that inflated the salaries and retirement packages of city administrators and current and former councilmembers in Bell.

Lawyers for the attorney general's office told Dau they believed their office had the authority to pursue a civil claim on behalf of residents and taxpayers.

“There is a real question of authority here,” said Dau during a hearing in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday. “You say they're looting the city and you can enforce it, but where is the case that says the attorney general can enforce it?”

Dau added, “So I'm wondering, is this just a political lawsuit?”

James Spertus, an attorney representing former City Administrator Robert Rizzo, predicted the state's case would be dismissed.

“This case is dead. … The complaint is not going to proceed,” Spertus said outside the courtroom.

Brown, who was elected governor Tuesday, is seeking to force Rizzo and seven other current and former city officials to return hundreds of thousands of dollars to the city and reduce pension benefits that could cost the working-class community millions in years to come.

Dau said he had no doubt that the lucrative salaries paid to Rizzo and others were outrageous and that he understood that residents were upset. But he said the place to resolve those concerns should be at the “ballot box and criminals courts.”

Criminal charges have been filed against Rizzo, Assistant City Administrator Angela Spaccia, Mayor Oscar Hernandez and five other current or former council members by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.

Dau also rejected an effort by Spertus to prevent the city from obtaining Rizzo’s private e-mails. The city already had received about 4,000 e-mails from Rizzo’s private e-mail provider.

About 10 of those e-mails involved potential attorney-client-privilege issues, attorneys told the judge.

City Atty. James Casso agreed to delete one e-mail involving Spertus and Rizzo, but the city will be able to retain e-mails between Rizzo and Tom Brown, a former attorney for the city, about the city manager's recent DUI.

-- Richard Winton

Photo: Robert Rizzo after his arrest. Credit: Los Angeles Times