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Judge leaning toward dismissing attorney general's case against Bell officials

March 17, 2011 | 11:53 am

Former Bell City Council members cannot be sued for passing ordinances that awarded them hefty salaries, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ralph W. Dau tentatively ruled Thursday.

Dau will issue a formal, written ruling, perhaps as early as Thursday afternoon.

The tentative ruling would effectively cripple the sweeping civil lawsuit filed by then-Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown against former City Administrator Robert Rizzo and seven other current and former city officials who have been criminally charged with misappropriation of public funds.

Brown, who is now governor, vowed to recover hundreds of thousands of dollars allegedly pilfered from city coffers in a "civil conspiracy" to defraud the public.

But some attorneys and critics said that Brown, who was running for governor at the time of the filing, may have overstepped his authority and that the attorney general's office may not have standing to sue. If Dau upholds his tentative ruling, the state's only remedy would be the Court of Appeals.

Dau said in court that he was concerned about the attorney general’s accusations that defendants' compensation exceeded what was "reasonable and commensurate with defendants' respective duties and responsibilities."

"I can't say, 'You've set unreasonable compensation, I will decide what's reasonable.' That's the city council's job," Dau said.

He said setting municipal salaries is a legislative matter, not a judicial issue. “I don’t want to overstep my authority,” the judge said.

Ronald Kaye, an attorney for former Bell Councilman George Cole, said he was encouraged and is confident Dau will uphold his ruling. He said it would send a message to prosecutors in the criminal proceedings: "We only hope that the district attorney's office can gain some insight from this and stop this witch hunt."

The prospect of Dau’s ruling, coupled with Judge Henry J. Hall's decision Wednesday to throw out one count of misappropriating public funds against Rizzo, is a sign of the lack of evidence against the former city administrator, said James Spertus, Rizzo's attorney.

"To the extent that the public thinks Mr. Rizzo is responsible for massive losses to the city -- they're wrong," Spertus said. "The true tragedy is that the city is incurring massive legal fees for its private attorneys to participate in the attorney general and district attorney's cases."

RELATED:

Bell seeks emergency legislation to certify election results

Rizzo's horse-racing partner got millions in city business, D.A. says

Rizzo ordered to stand trial for conflict of interest, one charge dismissed

-- Corina Knoll

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