LOS ANGELES — The six current and former officials facing charges of looting the working-class suburb of Bell were actually highly paid puppets of the Los Angeles suburb's disgraced city manager, according to the testimony of the lone member of the city council not facing criminal charges.
Lorenzo Velez told Superior Court Judge Henry Hall on Tuesday that it was former City Manager Robert Rizzo who decided what matters the council would consider and who told members how to vote on virtually every issue that came before them.
"Everything had to go through Mr. Robert Rizzo before it could be addressed," Velez said during the second day of a public hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence to send the six public officials to trial on dozens of fraud charges.
"He wanted to be informed of everything, and he wanted to authorize everything that was done," Velez said, adding that council members couldn't give orders to city employees because Rizzo "had an issue with that."
The six public officials who are the subject of the preliminary hearing are Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez; Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo; Councilman George Mirabal; former Mayor George Cole; former Councilmen Luis Artiga, and Victor Bello.
Rizzo, who faces more than 50 fraud charges, was paid $1.5 million a year in salary and benefits. He and Bell's former assistant city manager, Angela Spaccia, who was paid $376,288 a year, are expected to face a similar preliminary hearing next week.
The six officials were paid about $100,000 a year for their service on Bell's part-time city council – salaries authorities say they illegally boosted by holding memberships on the boards of a handful of sham public agencies that did nothing.
Velez said four public agencies that paid huge sums of money to most of the city's elected officials didn't really exist as far as he could tell, although he often contradicted himself on that point under cross-examination.
Velez was appointed to the council to replace Bello in October 2009. He said he never knew of the Bell Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, the Community Housing Authority, the Surplus Property Authority and the Public Finance Authority when he joined the council and could never recall attending a meeting connected to any of those agencies.
When minutes of council meetings going back more than a year were pointed out to him on cross-examination, however, Velez acknowledged he did vote on issues involving all of those agencies, sometimes making or seconding a motion for approval himself.
Still, he insisted he wasn't aware that meant he was also a board member of a separate public entity, adding those boards never met outside the council.
He also acknowledged that he, like the others, simply followed Rizzo's lead and voted whatever way Rizzo told them to.
"I should have asked more questions, I'm not denying that," said Velez, the only member of the city council who did not take a large salary. "If ignorance is a crime, I guess I'm guilty."
Prosecutors declined to discuss Velez's testimony. Defense attorneys said they believe he bolstered their clients' cases by pointing out they conducted business in public and that while the other public entities they directed may have not met for long periods of time, they conducted legitimate city business.
"What we saw today was that the mayor, the vice mayor, all the council members, did the best job they could," said attorney Stanley Friedman, who represents Hernandez.
He and other attorneys have maintained that it was not a crime for the elected officials to pay themselves huge salaries as long as they did the work.
Their clients, meanwhile, were upbeat.
"Did you see Councilman Velez's nose growing?" Artiga joked as he left the courtroom.
Velez was expected to conclude his testimony Wednesday, and be followed to the witness stand by longtime Bell City Clerk Rebecca Valdez.