Robert Rizzo, former Bell city administrator, covers his mouth as he talks… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)
Former Bell Chief Administrative Officer Robert Rizzo will not challenge most of the facts in the corruption case against him but instead will lean on the simple argument that everything he did was legal, his attorney said.
As Rizzo's preliminary hearing on 54 corruption charges began Tuesday, James Spertus told Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Henry J. Hall that the question was "whether the core facts constitute a violation of the penal code."
Spertus said he had a tough road ahead. "I don't have any illusion we'll convince the judge at this stage," he said in an interview outside the courtroom.
Rizzo is one of eight current or former city leaders charged in the wide-ranging corruption case. Six others, including nearly every member of the City Council, have been ordered to stand trial for misappropriation of funds, and Rizzo's former assistant, Angela Spaccia, is charged with looting the city treasury.
Dressed in a blue sports coat and gray slacks, Rizzo sat with his ankles crossed, holding a yellow legal pad. His hair, dyed brown before the scandal erupted last summer, has turned gray. As two witnesses testified to his alleged misdeeds, he occasionally leaned forward to whisper to his attorney.
The city charter in Bell, one of the poorest towns in Los Angeles County, provided Rizzo with extraordinary powers, Spertus said in an interview. "And now there's regret," he added.
The charter was approved in a special election in 2005 in which fewer than 400 people voted. The charter not only increased Rizzo's power, it also enabled council members to get around a state law designed to limit the salaries of municipal politicians.
In a memo he filed with the court laying out his case, Spertus defended Rizzo's action, including the loans from the city treasury that he gave to 43 city employees. Everyone employed by the city was aware of the loan program, the document said, including then-City Atty. Edward Lee.
In his opening statement, Deputy Dist. Atty. Sean Hassett called the $1.9-million loan program "just a straight misappropriation of the public's money."
Rizzo also gave a $300,000 loan to the owner of a Chevy dealership and to a foundation run by a councilman.
Lourdes Garcia, Bell's director of administrative services, testified that Spaccia received a loan of $77,500 just a couple of months after she started working for the city. Spaccia received loans that totaled at least $200,000.
Garcia, who received two loans herself for a total of $177,500, was offered limited immunity in exchange for her testimony.
Much of Tuesday's hearing focused on Rizzo's alleged attempts to conceal his high salary, and those of council members, by creating documents containing incorrect figures. By the time he resigned under pressure last July, Rizzo's annual compensation had reached $1.5 million, and most council members had been paid nearly $100,000 a year.
In court, Bell resident Roger Ramirez testified that he asked Rizzo at a council meeting whether it was true he earned $400,000 a year. "If I could be making $400,000 a year, I wouldn't be working here," he said the administrator replied.
In response to his 2008 public records request, Ramirez received a document from the city showing Rizzo's salary was $185,736 and that council members earned about $8,000 a year.
In response to a public records request from The Times filed around the same time, the city listed Rizzo's salary as $221,445 and council members' as $15,984.
Spertus said that the Ramirez incident is the one charge that could be a problem for his client.
Garcia testified to the gyrations Rizzo went through to come up with the figures he gave Ramirez. She said that different percentages of Rizzo's pay were charged to nine city funds, and that he told her to tell Ramirez only the portion of his salary that was drawn from the general fund.
Garcia said Rizzo told her that the $150-a-month figure that city books showed council members received for sitting on the panel was too low to give to Ramirez. Instead, she testified, Rizzo told her to draft a memo that listed their salaries as $673 a month, the same salary panel members received in 2002 or 2003.
Garcia said she and City Clerk Rebecca Valdez felt uncomfortable with Rizzo's attempts to hide his salary and both lost sleep thinking about it.
"It's better to be unemployed than do something inappropriate," Garcia said she told Valdez. Both testified at the previous hearing that they went along with Rizzo's orders and never contacted authorities.