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Not Looking Good for Accused Bell Officials

LOS ANGELES (CN) - Six former Bell city officials accused of paying themselves exorbitant salaries for part-time work paid themselves for boards and commissions that never met, a city clerk testified at the officials' corruption trial.

Bell, one of Los Angeles County's poorest cities, became a poster child for corruption when the salaries of its top officials were revealed : its six highest-paid administrators were getting combined annual salaries of $6 million.

City Council members Lorenzo Velez, George Mirabal, Luis Artiga, Teresa Jacobo, Victor Bello and Mayor Oscar Hernandez were charged with multiple counts of misuse of public money.

Council members were paid about $100,000 a year for boards and commissions that rarely met and did little to no work, prosecutors claims.

Defense attorneys in the trial that began on Jan. 24, have tried to pin the blame on former City Manager Robert Rizzo. Defense attorneys claim their clients are upstanding citizens who were hoodwinked and sucked into Rizzo's scheme.

Rizzo was paid nearly $800,000 per year, far more than the president of the United States. He is scheduled for trial later this year.

Prosecution witness Bell City Clerk Rebecca Valdez testified last week that the City Council members were paid for board meetings that never convened, and that she signed minutes for meetings at which she was not present.

Valdez has been granted immunity.

"You'll find my signature on some of the documents because it needs to have the city clerk's signature," Valdez told jurors last week. "The way things were run back then, I couldn't ask any questions. I was told I had to sign."

Valdez also testified that her signature was forged on resolutions, minutes, agendas and contracts. Valdez said she was appointed to the post in 2004 but didn't officially start her duties for three years.

In the interim, Valdez's predecessor had left the city, disqualifying her from holding the job, but continued her duties anyway, Valdez testified.

The second witness for the prosecution was former city official Lourdes Garcia, who also has been granted immunity. She testified that Councilman Bello was paid a salary of $100,000 after he left the council to work at a city food bank - a job that could have been held by a volunteer.

Garcia said she was "ordered" to prepare a contract after Bello quit the council.

Garcia was paid $422,000 a year as Bell's director of administrative services.

She testified Friday that Rizzo duped her into misstating city worker's salaries. She said he made her prepare documents showing his annual salary was $185,000 per, though he was pulling in more than four times that amount.

Documents showed council members were paid annual salaries of $8,000, though thy actually were receiving closer to $100,000, Garcia said.

"I had a bad feeling that it might be wrong, but I trusted him," Garcia said of Rizzo. "I thought he wouldn't ask me to do something wrong."

An elderly juror was excused for vertigo last week and was replaced with an alternate juror. Another alternate was sent home because his employer would pay for only 10 days of jury duty, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy told the remaining jurors to take care of themselves.

"No bungee jumping, no jumping out of airplanes," the judge said.Bell, pop. 36,000, had an estimated per capita household income of $37,483 in 2009 - 36.4 percent below the state median of $58,931, according to city-data.com.

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