LOS ANGELES (CBS) — The only member of the Bell City Council not facing
criminal charges as a result of a public corruption probe testified Tuesday that former City Administrator Robert Rizzo virtually ruled the small blue-collar city in southeast Los Angeles County.

“Everything had to go through (Rizzo),” Councilman Lorenzo Velez testified on the second day of the preliminary hearing for six of the eight current and former city officials charged in the case.

Velez told the court that any issue to come before the Bell City Council had to first be approved by Rizzo.

“He wanted to authorize everything that needed to be done,” Velez said. When it came to the council agenda, Rizzo “would say we need to vote on this, and we approved it…no debate at all,” said Velez, who joined the Bell City Council in late 2009.

Superior Court Judge Henry J. Hall will determine if there is enough evidence to require the defendants to stand trial on charges that they helped loot the small Los Angeles suburb of about $5.5 million.

In a hearing that is expected to continue through Thursday at the downtown courthouse, Hall is first considering the case against Mayor Oscar Hernandez, 63; Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo, 53; Councilman George Mirabal, 61, and former Councilmen Luis Artiga, 49; George Cole, 61; and Victor Bello, 52.

Hall is expected to hear evidence next week against Rizzo, 57; former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia, 52; as well as additional charges against Hernandez and Artiga.

Rizzo is also charged with conflict of interest and misappropriation of funds in a separate case that is expected to be heard last and to take about a day.

“Never in the history of the state of California has there been a case where the members of a city council (have been charged with) paying themselves illegal salaries,” Deputy District Attorney Edward Miller told the judge Monday in his opening statement. “The facts are so extreme.”

In summing up the 20 charges facing the three current and three former members of the Bell City Council, Miller told of city commissions that either never met or met only a few times, but resulted in huge salaries for council members.

Ron Kaye, Cole’s attorney, tried today to get Velez to admit that he was also paid for his role on two of the allegedly phantom city agencies.

Velez, however, denied the charge, telling the judge that “I really didn’t (know) that I was participating in these two committees” since the meetings supposedly took place during city council meetings.

Velez is expected to resume testifying Wednesday, followed on the stand by the Bell city clerk.

The eight were arrested Sept. 21 in connection with allegations that they bilked taxpayers out of roughly $5.5 million through hefty salaries, benefits and illicit loans of public money.

All but Bello have been freed on bail.

Rizzo and other top city officials stepped down last July after the salary scandal broke.

The City Council members, who were earning almost $100,000 a year, significantly slashed their pay, but most balked at calls for their resignations.

Artiga announced last October that he was leaving his post, saying “it’s in the best interest for the city of Bell that I resign.”

Lawyers for the six current and former Bell City Council members said their clients have rejected plea deals that would have brought them two-year prison terms in exchange for admitting guilt and paying back all the money they allegedly looted from the city treasury.

(©2010 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Wire services contributed to this report.)


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