From his vantage as a longtime citizen of Bell, Lorenzo Velez said he was under the impression that the elected City Council ran his hometown.
When he was sworn in as a council member in October 2009, however, he said he learned that power was largely concentrated in one man's hands.
"Sir, who ran the city of Bell?" a prosecutor asked him Tuesday.
"In my opinion, Mr. Robert Rizzo," Velez answered, naming Bell's former city administrator. "Everything had to go through Mr. Robert Rizzo."
Even after his own swearing-in, Velez said, Rizzo approached him and said he couldn't participate in the meetings. "I was sitting in my council seat, and Rizzo said in my ear, 'By the way, you can't vote on any of these issues because you're not a council member yet.' "
The testimony came on the second day of a preliminary hearing in Los Angeles County Superior Court to determine whether six current and former Bell council members should face trial in a sweeping corruption case. They are accused of drawing big salaries for sitting on city commissions that seldom or never met.
In back-to-back hearings expected to follow this month, prosecutors will focus on allegations that Rizzo and his former assistant Angela Spaccia wrote their own lucrative employment contracts without council approval. Rizzo, charged with more than 50 counts of corruption, is also accused of falsifying public records to hide his salary, giving out nearly $1.9 million in unauthorized city loans and directing more than $10 million in city business to the firm of his horseracing partner.
As he faced questioning from defense attorneys Tuesday, Velez — the only Bell council member who does not face criminal charges — often appeared befuddled and out of his depth. Attorneys questioned his claim that for months after he joined the council, he did not know of the existence of numerous city boards on which other council members sat.
Such boards are at the center of the prosecution's case, since they account for the bulk of the $100,000 salaries paid to current and former council members.
Ronald Kaye, who represents former Councilman George Cole, said Velez made statements to district attorney investigators last summer that showed he knew the boards existed. The defense attorney pointed to a Bell council resolution in March 2010 showing that Velez voted to issue payments to one board.
"You voted for something you knew nothing about?" Kaye asked.
"I was kind of ignorant of the procedure," Velez said. "If ignorance is a crime, I guess I'm guilty."
After the morning session, Velez said he felt intimidated on the witness stand. "They're pushing me to answer things I can't recollect," he said.
With documents to bolster its case against the current and former council members, the state is not totally reliant on Velez's testimony. But defense attorneys tried aggressively to discredit him.
"You can't be Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm sitting on the council for as long as he has," said Stanley L. Friedman, the attorney representing Mayor Oscar Hernandez, one of the defendants.
Velez, who is seeking to keep his seat in next month's city election, said he rarely read resolutions that he voted on. "I just followed the recommendation of Mr. Rizzo or the city attorney," he said.
The hearing continues Wednesday.
Times staff writer Corina Knoll contributed to this report.