L.A. Now

Judge ousts spectator he says was signaling witness at Bell hearing

Interrupting a witness in mid-testimony Tuesday, a judge for the second time admonished a spectator in his Los Angeles courtroom to stop giving signals to a witness in the Bell corruption hearing.

This time, however, Judge Henry J. Hall ordered a bailiff to remove the husband of Lourdes Garcia, one of Bell's top financial officials. The bailiff said Jose Garcia, who was sitting in the back row, was signaling his wife as she testified about her dealings with former City Administrator Robert Rizzo and City Council members.

Jose Garcia, who works for the city as a code enforcement officer and rent collector, sat on a bench in the hallway working on a crossword puzzle during the rest of his wife's testimony.

He denied he was helping her and said he didn't understand why he was tossed out.

Lourdes Garcia is testifying under partial immunity. The hearing will determine whether six current and former council members, as well as Rizzo and his assistant, will stand trial for misappropriating millions from the city.

Last week when Councilman Lorenzo Velez was testifying, the judge announced that anyone in the audience giving Velez signals should stop. Velez, the only council member not charged with corruption, seemed rattled while on the stand.

Velez's daughter, Sonia Velez, who was watching her father testify, has been accused by frequent attendees of signaling him at council meetings.

Sonia denied the accusation Tuesday. "I did not signal him in the courtroom, that's for sure," she said. "My father says what he says on his own."

Despite the drama, Lourdes Garcia appeared unshaken as she testified for a second day.

The six Bell leaders are accused of being paid for meetings of city boards that seldom met or met for only for a few minutes. Before a Times article revealed their salaries, four of the five council members were being paid about $100,000 a year.

Garcia is one of several Bell officials who received salaries far higher than their counterparts elsewhere. Her salary increased 54% from 2006 to 2010, to $231,000. Her total compensation was $422,000.

Although she was one of the city's top financial officials, she gave the impression she was unaware or even out of touch with much of what went on in Bell. She said she had never read the City Charter, whose passage was a key event in raising council salaries; did not know that the charter said council salaries should not exceed those of 'general law' cities; and did not know that state law set the maximum monthly council salary for a city the size of Bell at $400.

Also at the hearing, Maria Grimaldo, a district attorney's investigator, testified that her office received a letter from former Councilman Victor Bello on May 6, 2009, claiming voter fraud and illegal towing of cars.

She said she didn't interview him for more than 10 months. Grimaldo testified that almost in passing she asked Bello his job and his salary. He told her he worked for the city food bank and received the same pay as when he was a councilman.

His comments started the district attorney's investigation into council salaries. Bello is among those charged, and the only defendant still in jail.

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