Former Bell City councilman George Cole, one of six former city leaders… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)
Former Bell Councilman George Cole testified Wednesday that he was a devoted city leader who gave up his salary during his last year in office, which splintered his relationship with then-City Manager Robert Rizzo.
Cole, the third defendant to testify in a corruption case in which city leaders are accused of looting the treasury with their huge salaries, said that in the summer of 2007 he noticed a park had closed and called Rizzo to ask what had happened. Cole said Rizzo told him he needed to reduce park employee hours.
"He said, 'This is a recommendation from my staff.' I said, 'I don't like it.' He said, 'You think you know better than the professional staff? You want to run this city?'"
FULL COVERAGE: Bell corruption trial
Cole testified that the park's closure prompted him to give up his salary, a notion that irritated Rizzo.
"He got angry and told me if I didn't take the salary I would have to resign from the City Council," Cole said.
"I told him that I was elected to that position by the people of the community, and if I didn't want to take the salary and stay on board that was entirely up to me," Cole said.
Cole said the relationship between the two men turned sour. "We hardly talked," he said. "If I tried to meet with him it was almost impossible. He made it clear that he wasn't going to forget this for whatever reason. I couldn't understand why he was reacting this way."
A document obtained by The Times, however, shows that Cole had considered giving up his salary a year earlier because he thought he was being paid too much.
"Mr. Cole is concerned he makes too much money," attorney Craig Taggart wrote in the October 2006 document, which recounts a meeting between Cole, Rizzo, Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia and Tom Brown, an attorney who did legal work for the city.
Cole, the memo states, wanted to donate his salary to a scholarship fund for the "kids of Bell."
"Mr. Brown," the memo states, "informed Mr. Cole that he will analyze Council Member salaries in different cities to assist Mr. Cole in making his decision whether to donate his salary."
Cole's attorney, Ron Kaye, declined comment Wednesday.
Cole, along with Luis Artiga, Victor Bello, Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal, are accused of inflating their near-$100,000 salaries by sitting on boards that rarely met and did little work. Rizzo and Spaccia are also charged in the corruption case and will stand trial later this year.
Cole testified that he never believed there was anything wrong with drawing his salary from these boards and thought of it merely as "a bookkeeping procedure."
The 63-year-old, who still lives in Bell, described decades of service to his community. He said he initially voted for an increase in council pay because he hoped to diversify the pool of city leaders.
The council was filled by retired white men, who "could afford to work on the council because it didn't cost them anything to be away from work," he said. "It restricted the ability in the city for other people to participate in the community."
Several witnesses testified about Cole's work with various organizations in the southeast region of L.A. County and his commitment to health and education.
Jennifer Torres, a senior at Cal State Los Angeles, said she looked up to Cole and that he helped her deal with violence and a teacher who made sexually inappropriate comments when she attended Bell High School.
"He's a hero to me," Torres said.
Kathleen Mello-Navejas testified that she worked directly with Cole to put together health fairs and programs geared toward senior citizens. Cole also spearheaded fundraising efforts, she said.
"George was kind of the go-to person for the city of Bell," Mello-Navejas said, adding that "he had a real compassion for the poor."
He was intensely proud of being from Bell, she said, always sporting a city of Bell jacket or hat.
Cole has several medical problems, including cognitive disabilities and wears hearing aids, his attorney said. He has also suffered several strokes and heart attacks.