Bell City Clerk Rebecca Valdez, shown at a preliminary hearing in 2011,… (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)
More than two years after the Bell corruption case erupted, the prosecution called its first witness Friday in an effort to show that the leaders of the small, working-class city became some of the highest-paid city politicians in California by serving on boards that sometimes met just so they could approve further pay hikes.
Rebecca Valdez, Bell's city clerk who has been granted immunity in exchange for her testimony, testified that it was her job to take notes at council meetings, including marking the start and end time of the various boards on which council members served, such as the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority.
"Were there City Council meetings where only some of the authorities met?" Deputy Dist. Atty. Edward Miller asked.
"Yes," Valdez said.
"Were there City Council meetings where none of the authorities met?"
Valdez testified that when she was promoted to city clerk, the council would adjourn after each board met, but that in 2008 it changed so that there were no longer any distinct breaks between the meetings. During a 2011 preliminary hearing, Valdez said she had no idea what the purpose was of some of the boards and commissions.
The city clerk is considered a key prosecution witness in its effort to convict six former Bell council members of misappropriation of public funds by taking huge salaries to serve on board and commissions that rarely met and did little, if any, work.
Miller spent most of the day asking Valdez to verify dozens of documents, including a series of resolutions that showed that all of the defendants at one time had been appointed — not elected — to the council. Valdez herself was appointed city clerk in 2004.
Valdez also verified salary documents for former council members. One listed former Councilwoman Teresa Jacobo's monthly salary as $7,666. Another showed an increase that bumped her salary to $8,083 a month.
In contrast, he then showed the most recent contract for Lorenzo Velez, who was on the council when the salary scandal broke. Velez, the lone council member not charged in the case, was appointed to the council in 2009 and given a salary of only $673.
"Did you prepare this document?" Miller asked Valdez.
"Yes," she said.
"And did somebody give you instructions on how to prepare it?"
"Who was that?"
"The then-City Manager Robert Rizzo."
"Is the city manager an elected official?"
"How does he get the job?"
"He applies for it and the council appoints the city manager."
Later, Valdez testified that at Rizzo's request, she knowingly gave a document listing incorrect salary information for city officials to a resident who had filed a public records request.
"He was my boss and I needed to listen to what he was telling me to do," she said. Rizzo, who is also charged with public corruption, is set to stand trial later this year along with his former assistant, Angela Spaccia.
Alex Kessel, the attorney for former Councilman George Mirabal, implied that Valdez was able to hide her own wrongdoings behind the wall of immunity and that she had benefited from her relationship with Rizzo, who lent her city money to use as a down payment for a house.
"He said, I'll lend you $48,000, is that right?"
"That wasn't between you and the council, that was between you and Mr. Rizzo."
Later, Kessel said Rizzo "insulated himself from the council members. Any wrongdoing was done without their knowledge."