Bell trial: Ex-councilman defends voting to raise his salary
Former Bell Councilman George Cole returned to the witness stand Thursday, saying he worked long hours in the small Los Angeles County city and had voted himself a raise in 2005 when the economy was still rocketing upward and sales taxes in the town were healthy.
Cole is one of six former council member accused of misappropriating public funds by taking huge salaries. Prosecutors contend they padded their paychecks by serving on various boards that seldom met and did little meaningful work.
On the stand Thursday, Cole testified that much of his work took place outside of city meetings.
“The meeting is really the culmination of many hours of work that takes place outside these meetings,” he testified. “The real work is in the projects, the planning, meeting with staff and consultants, visiting sites, talking with folks in the community.”
He said that when he voted for a council salary increase in 2005, "The economy in the city of Bell was very strong, housing prices were going up, sales taxes were going up, the audits for those years showed the city in a very strong financial position.”
He said the resolution for the increase was written by Robert Rizzo, the city manager at the time. Rizzo, now charged with 69 corruption-related felonies, is scheduled to stand trial later this year.
On Wednesday, Cole described himself to jurors as a devoted city leader who gave up his salary during his last year in office, splintering his relationship with Rizzo.
He said that in the summer of 2007 he noticed a park had closed and called Rizzo to ask what had happened. Cole said Rizzo told him he needed to reduce park employee hours.
"He said, 'This is a recommendation from my staff.' I said, 'I don't like it.' He said, 'You think you know better than the professional staff? You want to run this city?' "
Cole testified that the park's closure prompted him to give up his salary, a notion that irritated Rizzo.
Cole said the relationship between the two men turned sour.
"We hardly talked," he said. "If I tried to meet with him it was almost impossible. He made it clear that he wasn't going to forget this for whatever reason. I couldn't understand why he was reacting this way."
A document obtained by The Times, however, shows that Cole had considered giving up his salary a year earlier because he thought he was being paid too much.
"Mr. Cole is concerned he makes too much money," attorney Craig Taggart wrote in the October 2006 document, which recounts a meeting between Cole, Rizzo, Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia and Tom Brown, an attorney who did legal work for the city.
Cole, the memo states, wanted to donate his salary to a scholarship fund for the "kids of Bell."
"Mr. Brown," the memo states, "informed Mr. Cole that he will analyze Council Member salaries in different cities to assist Mr. Cole in making his decision whether to donate his salary."
Cole's attorney, Ron Kaye, declined to comment Wednesday.
Cole, along with Luis Artiga, Victor Bello, Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal, could face prison time if convicted.
Photo: George Cole in court last month on the opening day of his trial. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times