March 21, 2013

By JOHN ROGERS Associated Press


Five former elected officials in a small, blue-collar California city who became a national symbol of municipal greed were convicted Wednesday of stealing taxpayer money by serving on a panel that evidence showed was created only to boost their annual salaries to nearly $100,000.

Former Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez and onetime City Council members Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal, George Cole and Victor Bello were all convicted of misappropriating public funds.

Former Councilman Luis Artiga was acquitted of all charges. The pastor of Bell Community Church broke down in tears and pointed heavenward as the not guilty verdicts were read.

"I said, 'Thank you, Lord,'" a beaming Artiga, surrounded by his wife and four children, said outside court. "I never lost faith. I knew it, I just knew it."

After the four-week trial, the other defendants were convicted of illegally taking money for sitting on Bell's Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, an entity they could not prove had been legally established or did any work.

Records showed it met only one time between 2006 and 2010.

After the verdicts were read, Judge Kathleen Kennedy noted there were 10 deadlocked counts and asked the foreman if the panel had exhausted efforts to reach decisions.

He said that was correct, explaining the jury had split 9-3 on each of those counts. He did not reveal if the panel favored conviction.

Kennedy polled all 12 jurors, and four said they believed a verdict could be reached if they received more direction. Kennedy ordered them to resume deliberations then sent them home later in the day. The panel will return to court on this week.

At the heart of the case was whether the six officials broke the law by paying themselves annual salaries of up to $100,000 to govern only part-time in the city of 36,000 people where one in four residents live below the poverty line.

An audit by the state controller's office found the city had illegally raised property taxes, business license fees and other sources of revenue to pay the salaries. The office ordered the money repaid, which for a time put Bell in danger of filing for bankruptcy.

The defendants, many of whom took the witness stand during the trial, insisted they earned their salaries by working around the clock to help residents. Their lawyers blamed Bell's disgraced former city manager, Robert Rizzo, for creating the fiscal mess.Rizzo and his former assistant, Angela Spaccia, are expected to face trial later this year on similar charges.

City records have revealed that Rizzo had an annual salary and compensation package worth $1.5 million, making him one of the highest paid administrators in the country.

His salary alone was about $800,000 a year — double that of the president of the United States.

To fund salaries of officials, Rizzo masterminded a scheme to loot Bell's treasury of $5.5 million, prosecutors said.

Witnesses at the trial of the former council members depicted Rizzo as a micro-manager who convinced the city's elected officials that they too deserved huge salaries.

He was said to have manipulated council members into signing major financial documents, particularly Hernandez who does not read English and, according to his lawyer, was often unaware of what he was signing.

After the scandal was disclosed, thousands of Bell residents protested at City Council meetings and staged a successful recall election to throw out the entire council and elect new leaders.

Current Mayor Ali Saleh, a leader of the recall, hailed the guilty verdicts on Wednesday but said residents won't be truly satisfied until Rizzo and Spaccia are tried.

"Our community will rest when the legal process has come full circle and justice has been served," he said.

Hernandez, whose family members wept after the verdicts, was convicted of five counts of misappropriating public funds, as were Jacobo and Mirabal. Bello was convicted of four of the same charges and Cole of two.

Prosecutors declined to comment on possible sentences for the defendants until all the charges have been resolved.

Prosecutors brought an extensive, complicated case against all six defendants that totaled about 100 counts.

The jury had deliberated since Feb. 28 after one member of a previous panel was replaced and the judge told the reconstituted group of 12 to start over.

The trial was the first court proceeding following disclosures of massive corruption in the hardscrabble town of modest homes and few businesses.

The defendants' lawyers told jurors their clients had no idea what Rizzo was doing or that what they were doing was illegal.

Jacobo testified that when Rizzo told her that he was increasing her salary enough that she could quit her job selling real estate, she asked the former city attorney if that was legal and he assured her it was.

Hernandez's lawyer said the once popular mayor, who ran a small grocery store in Bell, was unschooled and not one who understood the city's finances.

"We elect people who have a good heart. Someone who can listen to your problems and look you in the eye," attorney Stanley Friedman had told jurors.

Category: News