Judge Staying Put for Rizzo's Corruption Hearing

Hearing begins for Bell's former city administrator, ex-assistant city administrator

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK

    The judge in the second of three preliminary hearings in the Bell corruption scandal Tuesday denied a defense motion to step down from the case.

    In court papers, James Spertus, an attorney for former Bell city administrator Robert Rizzo, urged Superior Court Judge Henry J. Hall to recuse himself, claiming he was not equipped to hear the current proceedings with an "open mind" and had strong pre-set opinions about the defendants.

    Hall rejected the motion, saying that as far as he was concerned, the first preliminary hearing "never happened" and "we're starting from scratch."

    Rizzo, 57, the alleged ringleader of the public corruption scandal, is charged with 44 counts of misappropriation of public funds, six counts of falsification of records by an official custodian, three conflict-of-interest counts and one count of public officer crime. He also is charged in a separate case with two counts of misappropriation of public funds.

    Former assistant city administrator Angela Spaccia, 52, is charged with four counts of misappropriation of public funds.

    Hall ordered six current and former Bell city officials to stand trial on similar charges last week.

    Mayor Oscar Hernandez, 63, and former city councilman Luis Artiga, 50, who were among the six bound over for trial last Wednesday, are facing additional charges in the current case.

    In a brief opening statement, Deputy District Attorney Attorney Sean Hassett said the four defendants in the current case "abused their authority and power and misappropriated the public's money."

    Rizzo and Spaccia, Hassett alleged, "simply created their own employment contracts ... (and) took great pains to hide their illegal salaries, cutting the city attorney out in the process."

    Spertus countered that the defendants were serving the citizens of Bell and the allegations "don't add up to a crime."

    The first witness to be called was Bell resident Roger Ramirez, who testified that in December 2008, he filed a request at city hall to find out what the council members were paid.

    After getting the runaround for months, Ramirez said he finally received figures showing that each member of the council was paid $673 a month. In fact, prosecutors say, four of the five council members were making 10 times that much.

    When asked by Hassett if he expected to receive a truthful answer from city hall, Ramirez replied, "No, not really."

    Rizzo has been portrayed as the man who ran the small blue-collar city in southeast Los Angeles County, with Councilman Lorenzo Velez -- the only current city council member who is not charged -- testifying earlier this month that the former city administrator "wanted to authorize everything that needed to be done."

    In the latest case, Artiga is charged with misappropriation of public funds and public officer crime, and Hernandez is accused of misappropriation of public funds.

    Artiga was ordered last week to stand trial on a dozen other counts of misappropriation of public funds, while Hernandez was ordered to stand trial on 20 other counts.

    All four were released on bail after they were arrested early Sept. 21. Also arrested were City Council members Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal and Luis Artiga, and former council members George Cole and Victor Bello.

    Artiga has since resigned from the council.

    Authorities allege the city officials bilked taxpayers out of roughly $5.5 million through hefty salaries, benefits and illicit loans of public money.

    The defendants have been ordered to stay at least 100 yards away from city hall, not to participate in city business and not to accept any compensation from the city without prior court approval.

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

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