Judge eyes tossing lawsuit against Bell officials

March 17, 2011

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SACRAMENTO, Calif.—Lawmakers cannot be sued for raising their own salaries, a judge tentatively ruled Thursday, indicating he was leaning toward dismissing the heart of a lawsuit brought last year against eight former officials of the scandal-ravaged California city of Bell.

"The conduct alleged by plaintiff in support of its first cause of action may be reprehensible," Superior Court Judge Ralph W. Dau said in his tentative written ruling. "But it is not actionable in civil court."

He said the "proper means of reforming a legislature rife with greed and ineptitude is the electoral process."

The judge didn't indicate when he would make a final decision.

The lawsuit brought by the state attorney general's office seeks to recover millions of dollars authorities say a handful of disgraced former officials looted from Bell, a modest, working-class suburb on the edge of Los Angeles.

All eight, including the former city manager and mayor, have either been fired, resigned or recalled by voters.

Seven of the eight also face dozens of fraud charges in criminal court.

Debbie Mesloh, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, said the lawsuit was filed to return ill-gotten gains to city coffers.

"If it becomes final, Judge Dau's ruling would effectively end this aspect of the case," she said. "But it would not have any effect on the proceedings against Bell defendants in the criminal courts."

Gov. Jerry Brown, who was California attorney general at the time, brought the lawsuit shortly after the Los Angeles Times reported last year that Bell's city manager, Robert Rizzo, had an annual salary and compensation package of $1.5 million and several other officials were also paid huge salaries to run a city where one in six people live in poverty.

In his ruling, Dau concluded legislators have the right to pass ordinances setting salary amounts for public officials.

Stanley L. Friedman, a lawyer for former Mayor Oscar Hernandez, called the ruling "a grand-slam homerun" for all the defendants.

When word of the officials' salaries spread nationwide, Bell became a symbol of municipal corruption and its residents were angry and embarrassed.

The City Council responded by quickly getting rid of Rizzo and other officials, but residents, still unsatisfied, launched a recall drive that culminated last week with an overwhelming vote to remove every City Council member from office.

However, there is no City Council majority available to swear in the new members because the judge in the criminal case ordered those charged with fraud not to come within 100 yards of City Hall.

The state Senate approved emergency legislation Thursday to let newly elected council members take office in Bell, but the bill has not had final approval.

The bill, AB93, was approved 35-0 by the Senate and was sent to a committee in the Assembly. If eventually signed into law, it would let Bell's city clerk swear in a new council as soon as the March 8 election results are certified -- expected sometime next week. top stories on Twitter

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