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Bell city clerk testifies signatures on documents were forged

At the trial of six former council members, Rebecca Valdez testifies contracts, minutes, agendas and even resolutions were falsely signed. Defense says her testimony could help its case.

January 30, 2013|By Corina Knoll and Ruben Vives, Los Angeles Times
  • Bell City Clerk Rebecca Valdez leafs through paperwork for a specific exhibit at the 2011 preliminary hearing for two former Bell officials accused of corruption. Testifying Wednesday at the trial of six former council members, she said the signatures on many city documents were forged.
Bell City Clerk Rebecca Valdez leafs through paperwork for a specific exhibit… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

A key prosecution witness in the Bell corruption case testified Wednesday that signatures on city contracts, minutes for council meetings, agendas and even resolutions were forged.

Bell City Clerk Rebecca Valdez's testimony could bolster the defense's argument that record-keeping in Bell was so sloppy that it would be difficult to prove that six former council members inflated their annual salaries to nearly $100,000 by serving on boards and commissions that met for a few minutes, if ever.

On her third day on the witness stand, Valdez said she noticed the forgeries in 2010 when pulling together records requested by investigators looking into possible wrongdoing. She said she never looked into the forgeries, and didn't make a list of the questionable documents.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy ordered Valdez to look through the paperwork being used as exhibits for the trial.

After thumbing through binders filled with documents from 2005 to 2010, the city clerk said she detected about eight agendas from 2005 to 2006 that had forged signatures.

"It looks like R Valdez, but that's not the way I sign," Valdez said of the name written in cursive. She said the forgery appeared to be the work of her predecessor, Theresa Diaz.

"That appears to be her handwriting?" defense attorney Alex Kessel asked Valdez.

"Yes."

"So from your knowledge of her penmanship you believe she signed your name?"

"Yes."

As the city clerk, Valdez was responsible for keeping accurate records of public meetings but her testimony has revealed that she signed minutes for meetings she didn't attend, sometimes made mistakes in her records and for three years was the clerk in name only, performing almost none of the required duties.

"Forgery is another area that questions the legitimacy and accuracy of the minutes and agenda which is the cornerstone of the district attorney's argument that no work was being done," Kessel told The Times.

The prosecution has used many documents signed by Valdez to illustrate that Luis Artiga, Victor Bello, George Cole, Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal did little work when it came to the authorities that beefed up their paychecks.

Among those is the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, which Deputy Dist. Atty Edward Miller has labeled a "sham."

On Wednesday Miller read the ordinance for that authority, which said it could be created "for the purpose of acquiring, constructing, maintaining or operating an enterprise for the collection, treatment or disposal of waste."

Miller then asked Valdez: "Have you seen an enterprise for the collection, treatment or disposal of waste in the city of Bell?"

"No," she replied.

Defense attorneys have attempted to pin much of the city's alleged corruption on former City Administrator Robert Rizzo. Valdez said Rizzo expected people to do what he said and was a chronic micromanager.

"It was pretty well-known to the employees that 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. "If he found out through a second person or third person, the employee would kind of be in the doghouse.

"When I got married," she said, "he was the first one to know before any of my peers knew."

Valdez said Rizzo questioned her about a house she was thinking of buying and urged her to make a 20% down payment. When she told him she didn't have the money, Rizzo offered her a $48,000 loan, she said.

Prosecutors say her loan, along with dozens of others provided to city employees, was given without proper authorization.

Valdez, who was granted immunity for her testimony, said she processed the repayment of such loans. She also prepared salary contracts for the council members, as well as Rizzo. She said she was aware of Rizzo's salary before the news became public.

Valdez testified that during a July 2010 meeting requested by Times reporters, Artiga and Hernandez appeared shocked when they heard that Rizzo was making nearly $800,000.

She also recalled that Hernandez, "said something to the effect of 'To have a good city manager you have to pay him well.' "

corina.knoll@latimes.com

ruben.vives@latimes.com

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