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Bell defense: Rizzo ‘ripped off the city’ and ‘duped’ council

The attorney for onetime Bell Councilman George Cole painted a portrait of his client as a dedicated and generous civil servant who logged long hours attempting to overhaul his city's educational resources but put his trust in the wrong people.

"George Cole honestly, reasonably and in good faith believed that his salary as a City Council person and for all the authorities was legal," Ronald Kaye said Thursday in a Los Angeles courtroom where six former Bell council members are standing trial for allegedly misappropriating city money by drawing huge salaries for serving on boards and commissions that rarely, and sometimes never, met.

Kaye noted that his client believed that the boards were a "funding mechanism, a budgeting process" when it came to his salary and said that the prosecution forgot to note that the city employed an independent auditor as well as an attorney who had been present when the pay increases were approved.

FULL COVERAGE: Bell trial

Cole, he said, did not have legal or accounting training and instead relied on specialists.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the buck starts with the city attorney," Kaye said.

The defense attorney also pointed a finger at former City Administrator Robert Rizzo, saying the onetime chief executive had "ripped off the city."

Rizzo and Cole, the attorney said, had been friends until Rizzo became known as "the thief, the fraud, the destructor of the city."

Cole is being tried along with former council members Luis Artiga, Victor Bello, Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal.

The corruption case in Bell exploded more than two years ago ,when The Times revealed that council members were making about $100,000 a year. The town’s chief administrator, Rizzo, was being compensated nearly $1 million for running the largely immigrant city of about 35,000 residents.

Rizzo, along with former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia, will stand trial later this year.

Authorities said their investigation showed that the elected leaders and top administrators had been raiding the city treasury by drawing huge salaries, lending out city money and imposing illegal taxes on residents. 

But Cole’s attorney said his client focused his efforts, sometimes 60 hours a week, on improving the small, blue-collar city that had few resources, and was particularly interested in improving educational opportunities.

"This became his mission. To protect the children of the city of Bell, to create a future for this immigrant community."

In 2002, Cole made a list of inequities among LAUSD districts that showed his district was "terribly underserved" and rallied a group of people to lobby representatives, Kaye said.

Kaye also said his client often provided childcare and dinners to those who needed it.

The attorney showed several photos of schools that Cole had been instrumental in building, including one that was to be named after the council member until the allegations of corruption came out. Cole, the attorney said, didn't think it would be fair to the school.

Kaye detailed a respectful relationship between Cole and Rizzo that then soured.

"It was reasonable to rely on this man because he had a track record of being this amazing, productive city manager," he said. "When he ripped off this city and these councilmembers, he duped them."

But Kaye said things had soured between Cole and Rizzo even earlier when Cole refused to take a salary in 2007. Rizzo said he "would not have it."

"From that point on, a huge rift occurred in their relationship," Kaye said. "They no longer would speak except at official functions."

Kaye said there would be witnesses including mothers, residents, volunteers and nonprofit workers who would attest to Cole's work in the community.

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-- Corina Knoll

 
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