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Top Bell official tried to confuse council members, witness says

Lourdes Garcia, Bell's former director of administrative services, testifies that former City Manager Robert Rizzo went to great lengths to make documents ambiguous and complex.

February 01, 2013|By Corina Knoll and Jeff Gottlieb, Los Angeles Times
  • Lourdes Garcia, Bell's former director of administrative services, testifies at a preliminary hearing in 2011. On Friday, she testified that former City Manager Robert Rizzo regarded council members as unsophisticated and easily manipulated, and disapproved when he learned that a staff member was taking an ethics class.
Lourdes Garcia, Bell's former director of administrative services,… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

Bell's former top administrator went to great lengths to confuse City Council members, purposely making resolutions ambiguous and complex so they'd have trouble understanding the documents, a prosecution witness in the city's corruption trial testified Friday.

Lourdes Garcia, the small city's former director of administrative services, said former City Manager Robert Rizzo regarded council members as unsophisticated and easily manipulated, and disapproved when he learned that a staff member was taking an ethics class.

To Rizzo, Garcia said, it was all justifiable because "it was for the greater good of the organization."

Garcia is the second witness in the prosecution's effort to convict six former Bell council members, all accused of driving up their salaries by getting paid for serving on boards and commissions that did little work and sometimes did not meet. Rizzo, who is charged with 69 felonies in the city's salary scandal, will be tried later this year.

Rizzo, she testified, insisted she draft council resolutions, even though she had little experience. He and then-Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia would revise them to be ambiguous. Garcia said Rizzo told her that council members did not understand city government.

"He put things in more complicated, less clear language in the titles, correct?" defense attorney Ronald Kaye asked Garcia.

"Yes."

She also said Rizzo would hide public money from council members by placing it in a surplus property account, rather than the city's general fund.

Rizzo also turned to Garcia when the city needed to draw up a memo listing city officials' salaries in response to a public records request from a resident, she said. He instructed her to list figures that were just a fraction of the nearly $100,000 paid to council members and the $787,637 Rizzo collected.

"Trust me, I know what I'm doing," Garcia said Rizzo told her.

Garcia said she knew that what Rizzo was doing was potentially illegal, but she never questioned him or thought of going to the authorities.

"He said what we're doing is OK, it's legal, there's nothing wrong," she said. "He had been a city manager for many years and he seemed very savvy and knowledgeable of local government."

Garcia described a city government where there was little room — or tolerance — for ethics. In one instance, Rizzo complained after hearing that an employee was taking an ethics class.

"Mr. Rizzo was always giving me directions that gave me the perspective that he did not want ethics in the organization," she said.

Still, Rizzo asked Garcia in 2008 to help draft the city's fraud prevention policy, which instructed employees to report fraudulent acts, including "misrepresentation of information on documents."

"The language, the formatting, where did you get that from?" defense attorney Alex Kessel asked as the policy was projected onto a screen in the courtroom.

"The Internet," she replied.

Garcia, who began working for the city in 1991, was earning $422,000 in total compensation before The Times broke the news in 2010 about the city's salaries. Her position was eliminated in 2011 when the interim city manager said she was underqualified for the new position in Bell's reorganized government. For her testimony, she was granted immunity by the prosecution.

Former council members Luis Artiga, Victor Bello, George Cole, Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal all face prison terms if convicted of misusing public money.

Rizzo and Spaccia are expected to go to trial this summer on other corruption charges.

corina.knoll@latimes.com

jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com

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