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Rizzo at center of Bell corruption, defendants say

As their trial nears a close, former council members blame the ex-city administrator for duping them into thinking their actions were legal.

February 19, 2013|By Corina Knoll, Los Angeles Times
  • Robert Rizzo was described as a micromanager who kept his staff on a short leash.
Robert Rizzo was described as a micromanager who kept his staff on a short… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

Time and again, witnesses depicted him as an oppressor who always had the last word, a controlling supervisor who threw around city money to manipulate people.

A defense attorney dubbed him "the destructor of the city" while those on trial condemned him as the man who led them down the rabbit's hole, duping them into believing they were allowed to take home huge paychecks as part-time politicians in a small, working-class town.

It may be months before Robert Rizzo actually takes a seat at the defendants' table to face corruption charges. Yet, in many ways, the former Bell city manager is already on trial.

In a courtroom with six former council members as defendants, it was Rizzo whose name was disparaged repeatedly by witnesses and defense attorneys. It became routine during the four-week trial for witnesses to deflect questions by saying they had put their faith in Rizzo, or were too intimidated to question him.

Later this week, jurors are expected to begin deliberating the fate of the former council members accused of misappropriating city funds by drawing oversized salaries. But it was Rizzo's name that hung in the air throughout the trial.

City Clerk Rebecca Valdez, the prosecution's first witness, said Rizzo was a micromanager who kept his staff on a short leash.

"Important events that happened in your life, like going to school, having a baby or buying a house — he had to be the first one to find out," Valdez said, adding that she informed Rizzo of her wedding before she told her peers.

Valdez said the former administrator insisted that only he deal with council members. One councilman, she said, was banished from City Hall by Rizzo and only allowed to reappear for meetings. Valdez said she learned not to ask questions and complied when Rizzo ordered her to slip his doctored salary contracts into a pile to be signed by an unsuspecting official.

She also testified that he directed her to give a document listing false salary information to a resident.

Bell's former director of administrative services testified that she drafted the false salary document at Rizzo's behest. "Trust me," Lourdes Garcia said Rizzo told her, "I know what I'm doing."

Garcia also said that Rizzo believed council members did not understand city government and purposely revised resolutions to make them overly complex.

Although Luis Artiga, Victor Bello, George Cole, Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal stand accused of drawing salaries of up to nearly $100,000 from boards that did little work, much of the defense's testimony and questions over the last month revolved around Rizzo and a culture he fostered that put a "firewall between him and the council," as one attorney said.

The three defendants who testified described Rizzo as a detail-oriented city manager with a head for finance who made major changes in the city's appearance. Yet, they said, he also used money to hold sway over council members.

Jacobo testified that Rizzo informed her that she would be able to quit her job as a real estate agent and instead draw a full-time council member's salary. He called it a cost-of-living raise, she said. A few years later, Jacobo said, Rizzo informed her that he would be giving himself a raise of up to $350,000.

Cole, a longtime civic booster and former steelworker, said his relationship with Rizzo soured when the former councilman announced that he would give up his final year of pay. "He got angry and told me if I didn't take the salary I would have to resign," Cole testified.

Cole said he voted for a 12% annual pay raise only because he feared a backlash from Rizzo, whom he viewed as a man capable of vengeance. Cole said he was surprised to discover $15,500 placed in his deferred account after he retired. He protested, but Rizzo refused to remove it, Cole said.

"It was reasonable to rely on this man because he had a track record of being this amazing, productive city manager," Cole's attorney Ronald Kaye said in his opening statement. "When he ripped off this city and these council members, he duped them."

Rizzo's attorney James Spertus said he's not surprised that his client has surfaced as the fall guy and noted that council members have been "overstating Mr. Rizzo's conduct."

"However, the council members are acting as innocent people act when their conduct is under scrutiny," Spertus said. "My hope is they will be acquitted and when Mr. Rizzo goes on trial for many of the same reasons he too should be acquitted."

The attorney has been pushing for a change of venue and estimates that Rizzo's trial will begin in the fall. "It would be grossly unfair to make Mr. Rizzo go to trial on the heels of a council member defense that blamed him in a proceeding when he couldn't defend himself or speak up," Spertus said.

corina.knoll@latimes.com

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