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Robert Rizzo had Bell salary information falsified, city clerk testifies

Records given to a resident who had filed a request with the city contained incorrect figures for the salaries of council members and the former city administrator.

February 11, 2011|By Jeff Gottlieb and Corina Knoll, Los Angeles Times

Bell's city clerk testified Thursday that former City Administrator Robert Rizzo directed her to provide false figures to a resident who had requested the salaries of city officials.

Rebecca Valdez's testimony came during the fourth day of the preliminary hearing for six former and current Bell City Council members accused of receiving huge paychecks for serving on city boards that seldom or never met — or, when they did, met for just a few minutes.

Bell resident Roger Ramirez filed a public records request in 2008, seeking the salaries of Rizzo and council members.

The document he received from Valdez shows that council members were paid about $8,000 a year, instead of the $92,000 they were actually earning when their stipends from city boards and commissions were included.

The memo also vastly underreported Rizzo's salary, listing it at $185,736 a year. He was actually earning $632,700 a year, not counting the numerous weeks of vacation and sick pay he cashed out.

Valdez testified Thursday that after Ramirez turned in his request, she photocopied council members' personnel action reports, which gave their true salaries, and was prepared to turn them over.

"When I showed it to [Rizzo] for review, he didn't want me to give that to them," Valdez said.

She said Rizzo summoned Lourdes Garcia, the city's finance director, and Valdez left the room. Valdez, 29, initially testified that Garcia gave her the memo with the false salary information and told her to give it to Ramirez, but later said she wasn't sure whether it was Garcia or Rizzo who handed her the misleading document.

Included among the more than 50 corruption charges that Rizzo is facing is a charge of falsifying public records to keep his lucrative salary secret. His preliminary hearing could start next week.

Asked by defense attorney Ronald Kaye why she gave out false information, Valdez said: "Because this was the direction I was given by my boss." Asked who her boss was, she said, "Mr. Rizzo."

Valdez, who earns about $72,000 a year, was given partial immunity and can't be prosecuted for what she says in court. She has not been charged in the corruption case.

When defense attorney Alex Kessel pressed her on the immunity, she replied, "I haven't done anything wrong."

"Did you do anything illegal for Mr. Rizzo?" Kessel asked.

"Yes," she replied.

Valdez was also questioned about several Rizzo contracts backdated September 2008 that split up his pay among the city boards. The contracts made it easier for him to hide his pay.

Last year, Valdez testified, Rizzo told her to get Mayor Oscar Hernandez to sign the contracts, even though George Mirabal was mayor at the time the contracts were dated.

Hernandez and Rizzo had a close relationship and she testified that Rizzo said Mirabal might ask questions. Along with Hernandez and Mirabal, current and former council members Luis Artiga, Victor Bello, George Cole and Teresa Jacobo are accused of misappropriating city funds.

The city clerk painted Rizzo as a micromanager who oversaw everything from public records requests to salaries.

Valdez said Rizzo had the final word and that if she received orders from anyone else, including council members, "I would always have to check with Mr. Rizzo and get his direction."

Valdez testified Rizzo told her that Councilman Lorenzo Velez asked for a raise after learning from a Los Angeles Times article that he earned a fraction of the salaries drawn by colleagues.

She said Rizzo said it "jokingly … so I wasn't sure he was serious."

Velez, who was on the witness stand earlier this week, testified that he never asked for more money. Velez is the only council member not charged in the Bell corruption case.

Valdez, who was raised in Bell and continues to live there, often seemed confused on the stand, asking for questions to be repeated. The graduate of Biola University in La Mirada began working for the city as a student in 1998 and was appointed city clerk in 2004. She admitted she had never read the city charter and was forced to familiarize herself with many city operations when the office was flooded with requests for documents after the scandal erupted.

"There's a lot of things I didn't know before that I'm just finding out now," she said.

jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com

corina.knoll@latimes.com

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