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Bell administrator testifies that she helped cover up city officials’ massive pay

A ranking Bell administrator who earned about $422,000 and admitted helping cover up her boss’ exorbitant salary was offered limited immunity in exchange for her testimony in a corruption case accusing city leaders of looting Bell’s treasury.

Lourdes Garcia, the city’s director of administrative services, acknowledged in court Monday that she typed a memo that vastly underreported the salaries of Chief Administrative Officer Robert Rizzo and council members.

Garcia is the second city worker offered partial immunity in an ongoing hearing to determine if there’s enough evidence to try current and former City Council members Luis Artiga, Victor Bello, George Cole, Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal for misappropriation of public funds.

The immunity offer for Garcia — and city clerk Rebecca Valdez before her — means she cannot be prosecuted by the Los Angeles County district attorney for her testimony. Neither of the city employees have been charged in the corruption case.

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Garcia, who was the third-highest paid city employee before agreeing to a 61% pay cut in October, testified that Rizzo instructed her in 2008 to provide salary information that did not include the pay that council members drew for serving on city commissions and boards that rarely, if ever, met.

“Where it says $673 monthly, is that a true statement?” Deputy Dist. Atty. Edward Miller asked Garcia about the figure printed for council members.

“No,” she replied.

Garcia, who began with the city as an account clerk in 1991 and took on her current position in 2003, said she was uncomfortable with Rizzo’s directive.

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At the time, all but one City Council member was pulling in nearly $100,000 a year, and Rizzo earned $632,700, not counting the numerous weeks of vacation and sick pay he cashed out. The memo Garcia created listed Rizzo’s salary at $185,736. She testified Monday that she prepared the document, handed it to Rizzo and never saw it again.

During cross-examination, defense attorney Ronald Kaye inquired about Garcia’s own salary. “This was a very good deal, correct?” he asked her about the five vacation days and two sick days she received each month and was able to cash out.

Garcia paused. “Yes, you could say that.”

Garcia and Valdez were also recipients of city loans approved by Rizzo, who overstepped his authority, prosecutors say.

Garcia and Valdez, who finished her testimony Monday, both invoked the 5th Amendment last month when deposed by Rizzo’s attorney as part of the state attorney general’s lawsuit against Bell officials. Prosecutors said they offered Valdez limited immunity to prevent her from taking the 5th in the ongoing preliminary hearing.

Throughout the day, defense attorneys took issue with statements made by Valdez and Garcia, saying they did not pertain to their clients nor the case at hand.

“It looks like Mr. Rizzo was cooking the books and had co-conspirators, but surely not our clients,” Mirabal’s attorney Alex Kessel said to Judge Henry J. Hall.

Hall said several times that testimony about the falsified salary information would not affect the defendants. At one point, Hall questioned Valdez for about 15 minutes. Some of his queries were about the defendants’ other jobs, as well as the work they did for the city beyond scheduled meetings. Objections were raised to multiple questions posed by the judge, most of which the judge overruled.

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Afterward, some defense attorneys said they were wary of what they said was an atypical courtroom scene.

“A judge is allowed to ask some clarification questions,” Kessel said. “I thought it was unusual to conduct a full line of questioning. I hope it doesn’t portend a certain result he has in mind.”

corina.knoll@latimes.com


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