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Bell trial: Witnesses say city leaders deceived them for years

February 5, 2013 |  7:46 pm

There was the local resident who was given a document with false City Hall salaries. There was the food bank coordinator who had no idea one of his volunteers was being paid nearly six figures. And there was the councilman who didn’t realize he was making just pennies on the dollar compared with his colleagues.

Witnesses called Tuesday in the Bell corruption trial all testified that city officials had deceived them, in some cases for years.

Prosecutors contend that the small city was awash in oversized salaries and that six former council members drew much of their $100,000 paychecks from authorities that rarely met and did little or no work.

But the testimony also fit with the defense’s strategy to show that their clients were misled by Robert Rizzo, described as a strong-willed city manager making nearly $800,000 a year.

“Rizzo put up a firewall between him and the council,” said one attorney.

Bell resident Roger Ramirez, who in 2008 asked for the salaries of the city manager and the council members, described the day he received his public records request from City Clerk Rebecca Valdez at City Hall.

Ramirez testified that he told Valdez the figures didn’t match what he thought was true and that the city clerk appeared worried that someone would overhear him.

“The only thing I can tell you is the expression on her face was concern and she looked around with her eyes and didn’t say a word,” he said.

The deceptive response to the public records request, Valdez testified earlier, had been ordered up Rizzo.

In opening statements, defense attorneys for Luis Artiga, Victor Bello, George Cole, Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal emphasized Rizzo’s role in the city’s alleged corruption.

And testimony from Valdez and former Director of Administrative Services Lourdes Garcia depicted City Hall as a place where Rizzo manipulated staff members and discouraged ethics and open discussions.

“Everything Rizzo did was to keep everybody in the dark,” Artiga’s attorney George Mgdesyan said Tuesday. “He knew what he was doing, nobody else did.”

Ricardo Gonzalez testified that Rizzo hired him in 2005 as the director of business development and relations. He said there was no job description but that Rizzo told him his duties included coordinating Bell’s food bank, which operated as a nonprofit and relied on volunteers.

Gonzalez said all of the defendants volunteered at the food bank and he was unaware at the time that anyone was paid for such work.

“Did you know that Mr. Bello might have had the title of assistant food bank coordinator?” Deputy Dist. Atty. Edward Miller asked Gonzalez.

“During the time before the scandal news came out, I did not know,” he replied.

Bello, who stepped down from the council in 2009, was listed as a full-time food bank employee and made nearly $100,000.

The final witness of the day received one of the smallest paychecks from the city.

Lorenzo Velez, the lone member of the council not charged when the salary scandal broke, was paid $310 biweekly since being appointed in October 2009.

“In June 2010, was there a story in the L.A. Times about City Council salaries?” Miller asked Velez.

“Yes there was.”

“Before that did you have any knowledge that other council members might be making salaries larger than yours?”

“No I did not.”

Velez testified that he didn’t even realize the council position was paid until he received his first paycheck.


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-- Corina Knoll

Photo: Roger Ramirez testifies in 2011 court hearing. Credit: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times