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Bell city clerk testifies Rizzo ordered her to doctor his employee contracts

The documents did not change his salary, but split up his pay so it was drawn from a variety of city agencies — making it harder to determine his full compensation.

March 04, 2011|By Corina Knoll, Los Angeles Times
  • Robert Rizzo, foreground, allegedly told the city clerk to lower the numeric amounts listed on five of his signed employee contracts dating to 2008.
Robert Rizzo, foreground, allegedly told the city clerk to lower the numeric… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

Former Bell City Administrator Robert Rizzo ordered his own employee contracts to be doctored before they were placed in a stack of standard resolutions that were routinely signed by the mayor after each council meeting, the city clerk testified Thursday.

Rebecca Valdez said that Rizzo told her last June to remove the city attorney's signature line from five contracts that had been created two years earlier but had gone unsigned.

The contracts did not change Rizzo's salary, which at the time was $632,700, but split up his pay so it was drawn from a variety of city agencies — making it harder to determine his full compensation.

While questioning the witness, Deputy Dist. Atty. Sean Hassett said those contracts "were merely created as a facade so they could use them to fool future Public Records Act requests."

Because the 2008 contracts had never been signed, Valdez said she was ordered to get the mayor's signature on all of them. When she mentioned that would mean getting a signature from George Mirabal, who had been mayor in 2008, she said Rizzo told her to seek out the current mayor, Oscar Hernandez, instead.

The city clerk said she gave the stack of documents to Hernandez after the June 28 council meeting and did not tell the mayor the paperwork included the 2008 contracts.

"At that time, I was under a lot of pressure and I was scared," she said.

Valdez said she waited for Hernandez to sign the documents, noting that he did not appear to carefully read any of the contracts.

Valdez, who received limited immunity for her testimony in the ongoing hearings that will determine whether eight current and former city leaders will stand trial for misappropriating more than $5 million, said Rizzo then told her to lower the numeric amounts listed on each signed contract.

"It was pretty low," she said. "I don't remember the exact number."

Rizzo's directive to Valdez came the same month The Times had submitted requests for the salaries of Bell's elected officials. The Times later revealed the high salaries paid to council members and administrators, including Rizzo, who later resigned.

Valdez said she was troubled by Rizzo's orders and ended up seeking advice from Tom Brown, an attorney working for the city at that time. Citing potential attorney-client privilege, Judge Henry J. Hall told defense attorneys not to ask about that conversation.

"I didn't come into work the following day because I was really sick just thinking about the situation," she testified.

The city clerk said Rizzo later saw how stressed she was and told her to forget his earlier request to lower the salary figures.

Rizzo's attorney, James Spertus, accused Valdez, 29, of downplaying her role at City Hall and pointed out that she had graduated in the top of her high school class and had been perceived as intelligent and competent when she was first hired as an account clerk in 2000.

Valdez, who took two Rizzo-authorized loans totaling $48,000, graduated from Biola University in La Mirada and was appointed city clerk in 2004. She testified that she did not feel adequately trained for the position but did become certified as a municipal clerk.

"It seemed to me she was trying to portray herself as a naive young girl when in fact she's a highly educated, trained public administrator," Spertus said outside the courtroom.

Judge Hall ordered Valdez to search for copies of contracts that attorneys for Rizzo and former Assistant City Administrator Angela Spaccia said were ratified by the council in 2005. A council agenda item from that year shows that the council was set to vote on a "Program of Services," which attorneys contend would have approved those contracts.

Valdez said she has been unable to find such documents, but acknowledged that her predecessor was disorganized with paperwork.

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