Bell 8: Six officials ordered to stand trial for looting city treasury [Updated]
Six current or former Bell City Council members were ordered Wednesday to stand trial on felony charges that they drew extraordinary salaries for serving on boards and commissions that met so rarely that one elected official testified that he wasn’t even sure what the agencies did.
In ordering a trial, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Henry J. Hall said it wasn't really a tough decision on his part. "This is not really a difficult case," he said.
[Updated at 5:26 p.m.: Hall order Mayor Oscar Hernandez and current and former council members Luis Artiga, Victor Bello, George Cole, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal to stay away from city hall and no longer participate in Bell's civic affairs.
The order essentially shuts down the City Council and makes it impossible for the council to meet until next month's election.
"These people may not be in the running of that city in any shape or form," Hall said. "The allegations are, in my opinion, appalling."]
The ruling sets the stage for a second preliminary hearing for two city hall figures in Bell who prosecutors describe as the architects of an effort to steal more than $5 million in public money from one of Los Angeles County’s poorest cities.
Former Chief Administrator Robert Rizzo and his assistant, Angela Spaccia, were among the highest paid city officials in California before they were forced to resign.
In laying out their case against the council members, prosecutors called witnesses who described efforts to keep the public from finding out how much the part-time politicians were earning.
When a resident asked for their salaries in 2008, two witnesses -– both city employees -– said they were ordered by Rizzo to distribute a document showing that council members made about $8,000 a year, rather than the $92,000 they were actually paid.
The witnesses, City Clerk Rebecca Valdez and financial administrator Lourdos Garcia, were offered limited immunity in exchange for their testimony.
Another witness testified that he wasn’t even aware of his colleagues' hefty salaries and drew a stipend of only $310 every two weeks.
Councilman Lorenzo Velez said when he pressed his colleagues for an explanation after The Times revealed the high salaries, he was told that he was paid less because he was appointed, not elected.
Defense lawyers in the case attacked the prosecution as being politically inspired and asked that the charges be dropped.
Ronald Kaye, attorney for former councilman George Cole, told the court that the case was "unfair, politically motivated and an unjust prosecution, and it should stop now."
Walking back and forth in the courtroom and leaning on a lectern, Kaye called the alleged wrongdoing in Bell "one of the most publicized municipal scandals in Los Angeles County, albeit in the United States."
Kaye said all six of the former and current city officials had become victims of the Bell salary scandal.
"All of a sudden they are dragged into the court, dragged into the media as being these pariahs," he said.
Kaye also dismissed the city clerk’s testimony as being "completely vacant."
Hall rejected Kaye's motion to dismiss the charges.
-- Jeff Gottlieb and Corina Knoll from Superior Court