Serving on Bell council was like ‘winning the lottery,’ judge says
A judge forcefully rejected a motion to drop corruption charges against six former Bell City Council members Thursday, dismissing their argument that they were entitled to annual salaries as high as $100,000 and saying that serving in the small, working-class city was “somewhat akin to winning the lottery.”
In a scathing 10-page ruling, Judge Kathleen Kennedy pushed aside the former council members’ argument that they did not know they might be breaking the law and that their salaries were protected by the city’s Charter, which was adopted in a little-noticed election that drew only several hundred voters.
“The city of Bell Charter,” Kennedy wrote, “did not make Bell a sovereign nation not subject to the general penal laws of the state of California.”
The judge, who is scheduled to preside over the trial of the former Bell leaders, said that ignorance is not a defense and that the defendants “should have known that their conduct was illegal.”
The six former council members, along with onetime City Administrator Robert Rizzo and his assistant, Angela Spaccia, were arrested last year.
The charges against George Cole, Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo, Luis Artiga, Victor Bello and George Mirabal stem from the way they made their money. Council members were the only ones who sat on four city boards that seldom, if ever, met. By 2010, they were being paid $1,453 a month for serving on each of the boards.
Kennedy said that when the boards met, “the majority of their meetings involved passing resolutions increasing their pay.”
“These resolutions,” the judge added, “were cast in a manner that it would be difficult if not impossible for a citizen of Bell to even realize that their net effect was to increase the compensation of council members.”
Defense attorneys argued that their clients didn’t know their salaries were divided among the boards and insisted that council members worked hard on board business but that minutes of the meetings were incompetently kept and didn’t reflect the time they put in.
The attorneys also have argued that when just over 300 voters went to the polls in 2005 and approved a measure making Bell a charter city, it allowed council members to get around a state law that limited their pay.
Defense attorneys said they realized their attempt to get the charges tossed was a long shot but said they intend to appeal.
-- Jeff Gottlieb
Photo: From left, former Bell council members George Cole, George Mirabal, Teresa Jacobo and Oscar Hernandez sit in Los Angeles County Superior Court for a preliminary hearing. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times