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Bell: Request for mistrial denied but attorney chastized

Ed lee

The attorney for former Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez requested a mistrial Wednesday after news surfaced that one of the potential jurors in the municipal corruption case had lunch with an attorney involved in the case.

The request was denied, though Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy had chastised the attorney involved in the lunch on Tuesday, telling her that her actions were unethical and "mind-boggling."

The development comes in the second day of jury selection in the trial of six former Bell City Council members accused of raiding the city treasury by paying themselves extraordinary salaries for their part-time work.

Heather Whitehead, the attorney who was reprimanded, is with a firm that represents Edward Lee in a civil malpractice suit filed by the city of Bell. Lee was a contract city attorney for Bell and testified during the preliminary hearing in the Bell corruption case. He is on the witness list for the trial as well.

"We don't know what other prospective jurors she has spoken to," said Stanley L. Friedman, the former mayor's attorney. He said his client's son had witnessed Whitehead and the juror in a friendly exchange on Tuesday.

Kennedy said she spoke Tuesday with the juror, who said he wasn't aware that Whitehead had a connection to the corruption case. The would-be juror was excused.

Whitehead apologized to the judge Tuesday and said she was a young lawyer and had been sent to the courtroom to learn about trial proceedings.

"Obviously, your honor, I have a lot to learn," she said. "It was an innocent, if stupid, mistake."

Kennedy called Whitehead's actions "shocking" and reprimanded her harshly.

"This is not a lapse in judgment," she said. "This is completely and totally unethical by any stretch of the imagination. It's mind-boggling."

Kennedy said Wednesday she would report the conduct to the state bar and contact a partner at Whitehead's firm, but that there were no grounds for a mistrial.

"I think you're kind of making a mountain out of a mole hill," the judge said of Freidman's request.

She said she would ask the remaining jury pool if anyone had made contact with an attorney in the audience.

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-- Corina Knoll

Photo: Former Bell city attorney Edward Lee testifies at a 2011 preliminary hearing in the corruption case against Bell officials. An attorney for the law firm representing Lee in a civil malpractice suit brought against him by the city was reprimanded for having contact with a prospective juror in the corruption case. Credit: Pool
 
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