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The Associated Press February 16, 2011, 8:07AM ET

CA city official tells of compiling false info

An administrator for the scandal-ridden California city of Bell testified Tuesday that she compiled false information that was given to a resident who demanded to know how much elected officials were paid.

Lourdes Garcia, administrative services director, said she was following the orders of Bell's disgraced former city manager, Robert Rizzo, and didn't feel good about what she was doing.

The salary figures she provided were only a fraction of what Rizzo and other top officials were actually making, Garcia said.

"I felt uncomfortable and that's why I didn't put my name on it," she said of her report.

Garcia, who has been granted immunity from prosecution, testified during the sixth day of a preliminary hearing to determine if there is sufficient evidence to send the mayor, vice mayor and four other current and former members of the Bell City Council to trial on charges of taking part in a scam to loot $5.5 million from the working-class suburb of Los Angeles.

Rizzo, who had an annual salary and benefits package of $1.5 million, is accused of illegally funneling millions of dollars of taxpayer money to himself, council members and others. He has pleaded not guilty and faces a separate preliminary hearing.

Each of the current and former officials who are subjects of the current hearing were paid about $100,000 a year for service on a City Council that meets about once a month.

Garcia testified that as far as she knew, all six were honest, hardworking people. She said she didn't believe they knew that Rizzo had her compile inaccurate salary figures for the public or that he paid himself and others through salary contracts that he never had the authority to issue.

Garcia was followed to the witness stand by district attorney's investigator Maria Grimaldo, who revealed it was a letter sent to her office in 2009 by one of the six officials facing charges, former Councilman Victor Bello, which led authorities to begin looking into the municipal corruption scandal.

During the course of her investigation, Grimaldo said, Bello revealed that, having recently resigned from the City Council, he was still drawing his councilman's salary of $100,000 a year to run Bell's food bank for the poor.

One in six of Bell's 40,000 residents live in poverty.

Earlier, Garcia testified that she compiled the false salary figures following a public records request from Bell resident Roger Ramirez who had heard rumors of huge salaries being paid to officials.

Prosecutors say that to hide their true compensation, Bell officials were paid salaries for several different jobs they claimed to do.

Garcia said Rizzo told her that in compiling the salary report, she should only include the salary he got for being city manager and only the salaries the council members got for their service on the City Council.

The bulk of the council members' salaries were for their service on several boards and commissions, which prosecutors say were sham entities that existed only to inflate their pay.

Garcia herself was one of Bell's highest-paid employees, earning more than $400,000 a year until the Los Angeles Times reported on officials' salaries last summer. She has since taken a 61 percent pay cut.

She testified that she received several raises from Rizzo over the years and never questioned them.

"I believed it was a legal contract," said Garcia, who has worked for Bell for 20 years.

Like other Bell employees, she also received loans from Rizzo that were taken from public funds -- one for $100,000 and another for $77,000. She said she believed those were also legal.

Garcia's husband, who also works for the city, sat in court during her testimony until Superior Court Judge Henry Hall ordered him removed, accusing him of trying to pass messages to his wife.

"They said I was signaling but I wasn't," he said outside court. He declined to give his first name.

The hearing is to continue Wednesday.

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