In a blow to the state's civil lawsuit charging eight current and former Bell city leaders with plotting to enrich themselves at taxpayer expense, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge warned Thursday that Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown's case is in jeopardy of being dismissed.
Brown appears to have overreached his authority in the lawsuit, which seeks to force the city leaders to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars in back salaries and slash their future pensions, Judge Ralph W. Dau said.
The judge also questioned whether the suit, filed at the height of Brown's contentious run for governor, was more about politics than law.
"There is a real question of authority here," said Dau during a hearing Thursday. "You say they're looting the city and you can enforce it, but where is the case that says the attorney general can enforce it?"
Dau added, "So I'm wondering, is this just a political lawsuit?"
On Thursday, the attorney general's office responded, telling the judge the state has the authority to pursue a civil claim on behalf of residents and taxpayers.
The sweeping civil lawsuit was the first legal action taken against the city and its current and past leaders. The suit contends former City Administrator Robert Rizzo and others conspired to drive up their salaries, inflate their future pensions and conceal how much it was costing the city.
"They engaged in a collaboration that amounted to a civil conspiracy to defraud the public, Brown said when he announced the suit at a Los Angeles news conference in mid-September.
Besides Rizzo, the suit named former Assistant City Administrator Angela Spaccia, ex-Police Chief Randy Adams, Mayor Oscar Hernandez and council members Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal. The suit also named George Cole and Victor Bello — both former council members. Rizzo was being paid nearly $800,000 a year and stands to collect about $1 million annually in retirement.
Dau ruled that some of the claims in the lawsuit, including an allegation that Bell's leadership conspired to waste public funds, could proceed, but that other allegations would have to be revised. Still, the judge cautioned that the entire case is in doubt.
Dau agreed the lucrative salaries paid to Rizzo and others were outrageous and said he appreciated the depth of anger that Bell residents now feel. But, he said, the place to resolve those concerns should be the "ballot box and criminals courts," not civil court.
Outside the downtown Los Angeles courtroom, Rizzo's attorney predicted the state's widely publicized lawsuit will be dismissed.
"This case is dead, " James Spertus said.
When the suit was filed, some legal experts called it an unprecedented tactic by a government agency, and Brown himself conceded his office was exploring a "novel" area of the law.
"We're testing the proposition of what public officials can pay themselves," he said. "The fact that someone is elected doesn't mean they get a license to steal."
Even if Brown's lawsuit is ultimately dismissed, it would have no bearing on the felony fraud and theft charges filed against Rizzo and others. The U.S. attorney's office, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the state controller's office and the state Department of Corporations also are investigating the city's financial activity.
Dau also rejected an effort by Spertus to prevent the city from obtaining Rizzo's private e-mails. The city has already received about 4,000 e-mails from Rizzo's private e-mail provider. The city contended Rizzo used his private e-mail to conduct city business in an effort to conceal his activities.
About 10 of the e-mails involved potential attorney-client privilege issues, defense attorneys told the judge.
City Atty. James Casso agreed to delete one e-mail involving Spertus and Rizzo, but the city will be able to retain e-mails between Rizzo and Tom Brown, a former attorney for the city.
Casso said his office is interested in determining whether the city — in effect — paid for Rizzo's defense costs in a drunk-driving case. Rizzo was arrested of suspicion of drunken driving after crashing into a neighbor's mailbox in Huntington Beach.