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Attorney general plans to review state's Bell lawsuit

Newly sworn-in Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris says her office will look into the lawsuit filed by her predecessor against eight current and former Bell city officials accused of misappropriating public funds.

January 16, 2011|By Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times
  • Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris said she would review the state's lawsuit against eight current and former Bell officials. The courts have said her predecessor may have overstepped his authority in filing the suit.
Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris said she would review the state's… (Damian Dovarganes, Associated…)

Newly elected state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris said Saturday that reviewing the civil case against current and former city officials of Bell was one of her priorities, but that she had yet to determine how her office would proceed.

Her predecessor, Gov. Jerry Brown, filed a sweeping civil lawsuit last summer and vowed to recover hundreds of thousands of dollars allegedly pilfered from city coffers in a "civil conspiracy" to defraud the public. That lawsuit, which was filed against former City Administrator Robert Rizzo and seven others who have also been criminally charged with misappropriation of public funds, has since been dealt a number of setbacks.

Courts have said that Brown, who was running for governor at the time of the filing, may have overstepped his authority and that the attorney general's office may not have standing to sue.

Harris declined to discuss the case in detail, saying she was still being briefed on the issue.

"I take it very seriously when people entrusted with public trust violate that trust," Harris said, noting that she established a public integrity unit as head of the San Francisco district attorney's office. She said the alleged misconduct in Bell would constitute a "violation of the responsibility we take on when we take public office."

But she said she was not yet ready to address criticisms that the case was politically motivated.

"I don't talk about cases until I know what I'm talking about," Harris said. She said she would make an announcement "in the coming few weeks" about how she would handle the case.

Harris made the remarks to reporters after giving the keynote speech at an annual summit of the Empowerment Congress, a grass-roots community organizing effort in its 19th year founded and headed by Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. Harris was introduced by Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), who called her a "truly groundbreaking woman."

In the speech, which marked one of her first public appearances since taking office, Harris called for focusing on practical solutions and getting the best return for public funds rather than quibbling over ideological differences.

She said that despite California's dire budget situation, it was an opportune time to address the state's biggest challenges, such as fixing a broken prison system and reforming education.

"We all know these times are turbulent," she said. "But we also know in times of crisis there is incredible opportunity."

victoria.kim@latimes.com

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