Bell 8: Defense attorneys express concern about judge questioning witnesses in corruption case
Defense attorneys in the Bell corruption case expressed concern Monday that the judge overseeing the preliminary hearing is questioning witnesses himself.
“A judge is allowed to ask some clarification questions,” said Alex Kessel, attorney for one of six former or current council members charged with misappropriation of city money. “I thought it was unusual to conduct a full line of questioning. I hope it doesn’t portend a certain result he has in mind.”
The preliminary hearing is in its second week, and on Monday, Bell’s city clerk, Rebecca Valdez, returned to the witness stand as defense attorneys attempted to establish that their clients’ part-time jobs required full-time effort and sometimes necessitated them working on weekends.
Mayor Oscar Hernandez and former and current council members Luis Artiga, Victor Bello, George Cole, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal are accused of drawing most of their salary from city commissions and boards that met rarely and very briefly.
After all six defense attorneys cross-examined Valdez, Judge Henry J. Hall questioned the witness himself for about 15 minutes. Some of his questions were about the defendants’ other jobs, as well as the work they did for the city beyond scheduled meetings.
Valdez, who was granted partial immunity, testified that departments such as building and planning had their own managers.
“So, again, City Council members did not have hands-on, day-to-day -- for managing those operations, correct?” Hall asked.
“Yes,” Valdez answered.
Hall also questioned Valdez about the appointments of Artiga and Velez and how council members voted on resolutions.
“Did Mr. Artiga ever vote ‘No’ on anything?” the judge asked.
“Not that I’m aware of,” she said.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Edward Miller called the judge’s questions “excellent.”
“He’s been very impartial and just asked questions that clearly state an intelligent analysis,” Miller said.
Objections were raised to multiple questions posed by the judge, most of which the judge then overruled.
During the lunch break afterward, some defense attorneys said they were wary of what they said was an atypical courtroom scene.
Daniel Nixon, the defense attorney for Jacobo, said many of Valdez’s statements have no foundation.
“This witness does not have any information concerning what work was done on behalf of the authorities. She simply doesn’t know. ... She’s the city clerk, she’s not somebody who’s privy to the actions of all the council members.”
The hearing will determine whether there is enough evidence to order the council members to stand trial. Preliminary hearings for former city administrator Robert Rizzo and his assistant, Angela Spaccia, will follow. Both are charged with misappropriation of public money.
-- Corina Knoll
Photo: Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Henry J. Hall on Feb. 9, the third day of a preliminary hearing for the Bell City Mayor Oscar Hernandez, and City Council members Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal, and former council members Luis Artiga, George Cole and Victor Bello. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times