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Bell: Rizzo won't dispute many facts in the case, will question whether he broke the law, lawyers say

February 22, 2011 |  2:09 pm

Former Bell city administrator Robert Rizzo will not dispute many of the facts in the corruption case that prosecutors have built against him, but instead will question whether any of his actions actually broke the law, his attorneys said Tuesday.

The city charter in the small, working-class town afforded Rizzo broad powers, James Spertus told the court. “And now there’s regret,” he added.

Rizzo and his top assistant, Angela Spaccia, were in court Tuesday for the opening day of a hearing that will determine whether the administrators and others will stand trial on public corruption charges.

Rizzo is charged with using city money to give loans to about 50 city employees and private businesses, falsifying public records to conceal his huge salary and conflict of interest.

Spaccia is also charged in the case, and Mayor Oscar Hernandez and former Councilman Luis Artiga are charged with receiving illegal loans.

Hernandez, Artiga and four other current and former council members have already been ordered to stand trial for misappropriation of public funds -– with the added caveat that they stay away from City Hall and essentially relinquish their roles as council members.

A Bell resident who reportedly received falsified salary information was the first witness called Tuesday, testifying that in 2008 he asked Rizzo about what he believed was his bloated salary.

“[He told me] you’re hearing too many rumors,” Roger Ramirez said.

Ramirez said he later went to City Hall and requested salaries for Rizzo and all the council members. A memo he later received listed the council members’ monthly salary as $673 and Rizzo’s as $15,475. Rizzo was actually making more than $51,000 a month and council members more than $7,600 a month.

Ramirez testified that City Clerk Rebecca Valdez handed him the information and seemed “unconcerned” when he said the salaries looked low.

Spertus called Ramirez’s records request “vague” because it did not specify annual salary. Spertus said the request was so nebulous it could have been fulfilled with just one word: “high.”

Deputy Dist. Atty. Sean Hassett argued there was nothing vague about the request. “Did you go in there as a joke and expect a joke response?” he asked.

“No,” Ramirez replied.

Before Ramirez took the stand, Judge Henry J. Hall denied a defense motion for a new "impartial" judge in the second wave of hearings. Spertus asked Hall to recuse himself because he was not coming to the hearing with "an open mind" and already had formed strong, negative opinions about the matter.

But Hall said, "As far as I'm concerned, the first [preliminary hearing] never happened. We're starting from scratch."

RELATED:

Bell judge refuses Robert Rizzo’s call to step down

-- Corina Knoll and Jeff Gottlieb

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