The first witness in the Bell corruption trial, city clerk Rebecca Valdez, testified Friday with immunity. Valdez said that some authority meetings took less than one minute. Patrick Healy reports from Downtown LA for the NBC4 News at 6 p.m. on January 25, 2013.
Testimony began Friday in the case of six former city of Bell officials charged in a government corruption scandal in which they allegedly stole more than $1 million in public funds.
Bell City Clerk Rebecca Valdez opened Friday's testimony by telling jurors that had she been asked to testify without the promise of immunity, she would have invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
The prosecution's first witness agreed to testify against former Mayor Oscar Hernandez, 65, and ex-council members Teresa Jacobo, 54, George Mirabal, 63, Victor Bello, 54, Luis Artiga, 51, and George Cole, 63.
The former city officials are charged with misappropriation of public funds. They allegedly paid themselves "illegal salaries for sitting on four boards" that did little, if any, work, according to prosecutors.
District Attorney Ed Miller focused Valdez’s testimony on four Bell entities known as authorities, with boards on which councilmembers were paid thousands of dollars to sit.
The prosecution called them shams. Valdez testified that some authority meetings took less than one minute.
But it was her dealings with Bell's now infamous former city manager Robert Rizzo that could help defense lawyers portray Rizzo as the evil mastermind who manipulated councilmembers and pressured staff including Valdez to deceive them.
Defense attorneys also claim the officials relied on the city attorney and an independent auditor who did not question their salaries.
Prosecution documents introduced during Friday morning's session included personnel action reports on the salaries. The documents were presented to show the disparity between the monthly salaries of two council members accused in the scandal and the salary of a then-new council member -- a difference of more than $7,000 in 2009.
Valdez also testified that she and a payroll clerk were directed by Rizzo, the city administrator at the time, to give the new council member his $673 monthly salary. Rizzo and his then-assistant, Angela Spaccia, are awaiting trial in a separate case alleging that they misappropriated public funds.
One of the challenges for the prosecution is to keep jurors engaged during a case based largely on bureaucratic paperwork that Valdez has been authenticating page by page. Even Judge Kennedy acknowledged to the jurors that the testimony is "a little dry."
NBC4 Legal Analyst Royal Oakes says this is a significant challenge for prosecutors.
"It could well be that they put on a whiz-bang case, and yet they can lose the case, because at the end of the day, the jury says we were bored, we don't understand it," Oakes said.
The court hearing resumes on Monday and Valdez is expected to be on the stand all day, including cross-examination by defense attorneys.