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The clerk for the scandal-ridden city of Bell testified Thursday that she provided falsified documents to hide the high salaries of the working-class city's top officials, adding she was acting under the orders of Bell's disgraced former city manager.
Rebecca Valdez said that when Bell resident Roger Ramirez filed a California Public Records request demanding to know what the City Council members and city manager were paid she pulled the proper figures for him. But before she could hand them over, Valdez said, former City Manager Robert Rizzo gave her a falsified set of documents and ordered her to release those.
They showed each member of the City Council was paid $673 a month and that Rizzo received $15,478 a month. In fact, four of the five council members were making more than 10 times that much and Rizzo had an annual salary and benefits package of about $1.5 million.
Valdez, who has been granted immunity from prosecution, testified during the fourth day of a hearing to determine if there is sufficient evidence for six current and former City Council members to stand trial on dozens of charges accusing them of taking part in a scam to loot their city of $5.5 million. A similar hearing for Rizzo and former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia is scheduled next week.
"Where did he come up with that $673 thing?" Deputy District Attorney Ed Miller asked Valdez of the salary figures given for the City Council members.
"I don't know, he just came up with it," she said.
She also testified that Rizzo ordered her to deliver falsely backdated salary contracts to the mayor to sign.
Although Valdez maintained she never personally did anything wrong, she acknowledged she didn't feel good about her actions and even said so to a former city attorney and one of her colleagues at City Hall. She said she never told the authorities until after the Los Angeles Times reported on the salaries last summer and authorities began investigating.
"Why did you give out false information?" asked attorney Alex Kessel, who is defending Councilman George Mirabal, one of the six officials who is the subject of the current hearing.
"It was the direction I was given by my boss," she replied.
During further cross-examination by Kessel and other defense attorneys, Valdez said she considered all six of the current and past officials to be honest, hard-working people. A lifelong resident of Bell, she offered a rare smile when she said she has known Mayor Oscar Hernandez and his family since she was a child.
Although it was Hernandez who signed the illegally backdated salary contracts, Valdez acknowledged under cross-examination from his attorney, Stanley L. Friedman, that English is the mayor's second language and although he speaks it fluently his ability to read it is limited. She added that he had difficulty whenever he was required to read documents in English during a City Council meeting.
She also said Mirabal's signature should have been on the backdated documents because he was mayor during the period they were dated. But she said Rizzo ordered her to take them to Hernandez because he didn't think Mirabal would sign them.
Authorities say Hernandez, Mirabal, Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo, former Mayor George Cole and former Councilmen Luis Artiga and Victor Bello inflated their salaries by serving on the boards of several public entities that served no purpose except to pay them.
Records show the six received tens of thousands of dollars apiece for serving on Bell's Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, Community Housing Authority, Surplus Property Authority and Public Finance Authority.
Valdez has testified that she knew of nothing that those entities had ever accomplished and was not even sure what the Surplus Property Authority and Solid Waste and Recycling Authority were supposed to do.
Minutes of their meetings kept by Valdez show they were only called to order occasionally and often for only a few minutes.
Cole's attorney, Ronald Kaye, asked Valdez, however, if it was fair to say she functioned more as a secretary for those entities and wouldn't be aware of exactly what the panels did or how much work council members put might in on their behalf when she wasn't there.
She agreed that was true.
The hearing before Superior Court Judge Henry J. Hall resumes Monday with Valdez scheduled to testify further, followed by two other witnesses.