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Bell trial halted as Rizzo hospitalized

February 23, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
The preliminary hearing for Robert Rizzo got under way with a legal challenge Tuesday. Rizzo faces a long list of corruption charges stemming from his job as Bell city manager.

It followed nearly three hours of testimony. Some observers in the gallery had seen him fidgeting and heaving deep breaths. Later in the hallway he sat on a bench with attorneys and co-defendants huddled around him. Minutes later bailiffs appeared, then paramedics.

"Mr. Rizzo has the right to privacy about his medical condition. I'm not going to discuss that with you," said Rizzo's attorney, James Spertus.

According to a statement released by the L.A. City Fire Department, EMTs responded to Rizzo's complaints of chest pains. Rizzo, though, did not want to be transported to the hospital, according to his attorney.

The emergency halted Wednesday's testimony. On the witness stand, Lourdes Garcia, former head of Bell administrative services testified under partial immunity.

The prosecutor's focus was loans to city employees. Rizzo allegedly acted as a type of "godfather." He approved deals on 44 different occasions.

"Did he call you and let you know that he was authorizing another $80,000 loan to himself?" L.A. County Deputy District Attorney Sean Hassett asked.

The loans totaled nearly $2 million. But Rizzo's attorney says they were not illegal.

"These were not people asking to borrow city money to go to Vegas because they felt lucky for the weekend," said Spertus.

Spertus explained that Rizzo had broad powers as head of a charter city, and that the loans served a public purpose.

"The purpose was to keep and retain employees that would have left their employment with the city to get the money they needed for their home purchases or educational programs," said Spertus.

In court, Garcia testified to dozens of loans, including to a former police chief.

Virtually all were paid back and fully collateralized. Yet according to prosecutors there was no finance agency with legal oversight of the process, only Rizzo, to approve or disapprove who could get a loan at 1.5-percent interest.

Hospital officials did not release details on Rizzo's condition.

The judge hopes to resume testimony Monday.