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Judge tosses California's civil suit against ex-Bell leaders

L.A. County Superior Court Judge Ralph W. Dau rules that legislators cannot be sued for passing ordinances that award themselves high salaries. Last year, then-Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown sued to recover funds from Bell officials whose salaries were among the highest in the nation.

May 06, 2011|By Corina Knoll, Los Angeles Times

A sweeping lawsuit against former city leaders in Bell has been tossed out by a Los Angeles County judge who for months has warned that the attorney general's case seemed flawed and politically inspired.

Superior Court Judge Ralph W. Dau made it clear in earlier hearings that he believed then-Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown was overstepping his authority when he sought to recover money from officials who earned some of the highest municipal salaries in the nation. Brown was campaigning for governor at the time.

Dau's decision does not affect the criminal case against former Bell City Administrator Robert Rizzo and seven others accused of draining the town's treasury with inflated salaries, generous pensions and loans.

Dau, who initially suggested the attorney general "back off," issued his final ruling Monday and said that because of legislative immunity, legislators cannot be sued for passing ordinances that award them high salaries. Such behavior "may be remiss, but it is not actionable in civil court," Dau wrote in his decision.

He also said that the judicial branch was not at liberty to determine legislative matters, citing separation of powers.

Defense attorneys say that because the civil case unraveled even as their high-profile clients remain targets of public outrage, they are even more confident in the lack of evidence in the current criminal proceedings.

"It's a great day that somebody had the right vision and was not tainted by political winds," said Ronald Kaye, attorney for former Councilman George Cole.

"It's very significant because these same scenes are going to carry over into the criminal case and other actions. A lot of the same issues will rear their head," added James Spertus, attorney for Rizzo.

"It's very hard for the defense to get dramatic victories, unlike the attorney general who got to hold a press conference under much fanfare when charges were initially filed," Spertus said.

Rizzo is named in the suit along with his former assistant, Angela Spaccia, former Bell Police Chief Randy Adams and former council members Cole, Victor Bello, Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal and Oscar Hernandez. All of the defendants except Adams face felony charges for misappropriation of funds. Former Councilman Luis Artiga is also named in the criminal case.

The civil suit had requested restitution to the city for the defendants' exorbitant salaries. Before he resigned in August, Rizzo's annual salary was nearly $800,000, more than twice the salary of L.A. County's top administrator. Adams made $457,000 and Spaccia earned $376,000, while council members received $100,000.

A spokesman for the attorney general said the office is considering Dau's decision and has not decided how it will proceed. At this point, the state's only option would be to appeal.

corina.knoll@latimes.com

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