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Bell city clerk says: 'I couldn't ask any questions'

Bell was a place where the city clerk wasn't really the city clerk, where a councilman was all but banned from City Hall and where you didn't ask questions, a key witness in the Bell corruption case testified Tuesday.

Rebecca Valdez said that when she began working for the city, she learned the key to survival: Do whatever City Manager Robert Rizzo asked.

Valdez testified Tuesday that she was directed to sign unfamiliar documents, hand out incorrect salary information in response to a public records request from a resident and obtain signatures for doctored salary contracts.

"The way things were run back then," she said, "I couldn't ask any questions."

Valdez is considered a crucial element in the corruption case against six former council members charged with boosting their salaries to $100,000 a year by serving on boards that seldom, and sometimes never, met. Part of her job as city clerk was to keep a record of city meetings.

But the city clerk's testimony provided an opening for defense attorneys, seeking to show that record-keeping in Bell was in disarray. Valdez testified that she signed minutes for meetings she didn't attend, was appointed to the job in name only and sometimes made mistakes marking the times that meetings began and ended.

The defense has argued that their clients acted under the guidance of Rizzo and that anything illegal should have been flagged by then-City Atty. Edward Lee. Valdez testified that Lee was present at council meetings in which salaries for the boards were approved.

Hired at 14 as a student employee to do clerical work, Valdez became an account clerk and processed invoices for the city.

In 2004, then-City Clerk Theresa Diaz moved out of town, making her ineligible to hold the elected office. Valdez was given her title, but continued her job as an account clerk. Diaz continued to act as the record-keeper for the city, but Valdez testified that she was told to sign documents as the city clerk.

"I would always try to question her as to what I was signing, and she would get upset if I would ask her questions," Valdez testified.

Even after Diaz left at the end of 2007 and Valdez took over the full duties, she said, she felt powerless to speak up.

Diaz was the daughter-in-law of former Councilman George Bass.

Rizzo, Valdez said, was a micromanager who insisted that he was the only one who could deal with council members.

"'If council comes and asks any questions, come and check with me first, and I'll give you direction,'" she said Rizzo told her. "We all knew that if any of the council members requested anything from us, whether it was simple copies, we had to let Mr. Rizzo know so-and-so called and they want us to do this."

Valdez said she complied with Rizzo's directive to give a document listing just a fraction of city officials' salaries to a resident who had filed a public records request because Valdez feared that her job was in jeopardy. Later, she followed Rizzo's order to slip his doctored contracts into a stack of papers to be signed by then-Mayor Oscar Hernandez.

The city clerk also testified that Victor Bello, one of the defendants, was banned from City Hall toward the end of his tenure, except to attend council meetings.

If Bello showed up, she was to tell the police chief and her supervisor. Twice a week, Valdez took Bello's mail to his home, accompanied by code enforcement officers, she testified. Bello resigned from the council in 2008 but retained his six-figure salary after Rizzo named him assistant to the food bank coordinator.

Outside the courtroom, Bello’s attorney, Leo Moriarty, declined to say why Bello had been banned from City Hall.

Valdez admitted that she made mistakes in council meeting minutes. An October 2006 meeting, for instance, was marked as starting at 8:03 p.m. and adjourning at 7:50 p.m.

The city clerk was given immunity in exchange for testifying in the case against Luis Artiga, Bello, George Cole, Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal, all of whom face prison sentences if convicted.

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