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Bell witnesses describe long-term deception

The only councilman not charged in the scandal didn't realize he was earning a fraction of the salary paid to other lawmakers.

February 05, 2013|By Corina Knoll, Los Angeles Times
  • Roger Ramirez said he received falsified figures after filing a public records request on government salaries.
Roger Ramirez said he received falsified figures after filing a public… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

There was the local resident who was given a document with false City Hall salaries. There was the food bank coordinator who had no idea one of his volunteers was being paid nearly six figures. And there was the councilman who didn't realize he was making just pennies on the dollar compared to his colleagues.

Witnesses called Tuesday in the Bell corruption trial testified that city officials had deceived them, in some cases for years. Prosecutors contend that the small city was awash in oversized salaries and that six former council members drew much of their $100,000 paychecks from authorities that rarely met and did little or no work.

But the testimony also fit with the defense's strategy to show that their clients were misled by Robert Rizzo, described as a strong-willed city manager making nearly $800,000 a year.

"Rizzo put up a firewall between him and the council," said one attorney.

Bell resident Roger Ramirez, who in 2008 asked for the salaries of the city manager and the council members, described the day he received his public records request from City Clerk Rebecca Valdez at City Hall.

Ramirez testified that he told Valdez the figures didn't match what he thought was true and that the city clerk appeared worried someone would overhear him.

"The only thing I can tell you is the expression on her face was concern and she looked around with her eyes and didn't say a word," he said.

The deceptive public records request, Valdez testified earlier, had been ordered by Rizzo.

In opening statements, defense attorneys for Luis Artiga, Victor Bello, George Cole, Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal emphasized Rizzo's role in the city's alleged corruption. And testimony from Valdez and former Director of Administrative Services Lourdes Garcia depicted City Hall as a place where Rizzo manipulated staff members and discouraged ethics and open discussions.

"Everything Rizzo did was to keep everybody in the dark," Artiga's attorney George Mgdesyan said Tuesday. "He knew what he was doing, nobody else did."

Ricardo Gonzalez testified that Rizzo hired him in 2005 as the director of business development and relations. He said there was no job description but that Rizzo told him his duties included coordinating Bell's food bank, which operated as a nonprofit and relied on volunteers.

Gonzalez said all of the defendants volunteered at the food bank and he was unaware at the time that anyone was paid for such work.

"Did you know that Mr. Bello might have had the title of assistant food bank coordinator?" Deputy Dist. Atty. Edward Miller asked Gonzalez.

"During the time before the scandal news came out, I did not know," he replied.

Bello, who stepped down from the council in 2009, was listed as a full-time food bank employee and made nearly $100,000.

The final witness of the day received one of the smallest paychecks from the city. Lorenzo Velez, the lone member of the council not charged when the salary scandal broke, was paid $310 biweekly since being appointed in October 2009.

"In June 2010, was there a story in the L.A. Times about City Council salaries?" Miller asked Velez.

"Yes there was."

"Before that did you have any knowledge that other council members might be making salaries larger than yours?"

"No I did not."

Velez testified that he didn't even realize the council position was paid until he received his first paycheck. He said that Rizzo told him the money was a stipend for expenses he might incur. Earlier testimony has revealed that Rizzo instructed the city clerk to prepare Velez's salary contract to be a fraction of his colleagues' pay.

The defense took the opportunity to question Velez about former City Atty. Ed Lee, who had been on the prosecution's witness list but, Miller said, will probably not be called.

"During the time that you were there and voted as a council member, did you ever inquire Mr. Lee about the legality of anything you were voting on?" Mirabal's attorney Alex Kessel asked.

"No," Velez said.

"Why not? Is there a reason you didn't?"

"Yes. Usually Mr. Lee would advise us right away if there was something wrong."

Miller would not comment on why he decided against using Lee, who has been brought up frequently in testimony and is the focus of much of the defense's blame. The defendants, their attorneys say, relied on Lee to advise them on the legality of their actions.

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