Bell trial: More potential jurors expected to be added to pool
Fifty more people were expected to be added Wednesday to the pool of potential jurors for the trial of six former Bell city leaders charged with raiding the treasury in the small, working-class town.
About 150 potential jurors were asked to fill out questionnaires last week, and on Tuesday, nearly 65 had been dismissed -- some after saying they were outraged and "nauseated" by the allegations that the defendants misused public funds. Attorneys said they expect the trial to begin Thursday.
The jury selection process is the warm-up act to a trial that has its roots in a municipal corruption case that exploded more than two years ago when investigators alleged that elected leaders and ranking administrators had been using the city's treasury as their "personal ATMs" by paying themselves extravagant salaries, lending out city money and imposing illegal taxes on a small, largely immigrant town.
Former Bell City Council members Luis Artiga, Victor Bello, George Cole, Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal are accused of collecting annual salaries of nearly $100,000, paychecks they allegedly fattened by drawing stipends for serving on boards and commissions that rarely, if ever, met. Former administrators Robert Rizzo and Angela Spaccia will stand trial at a later date.
On Tuesday, attorneys pooled their individual time to question jurors and attempted to gauge any preconceived notions about the case. Some jurors said they knew nothing about the defendants and the charges against them, while others said they were only vaguely familiar with the city of Bell. Few had a good understanding of the case.
"When I read about this, it was a really long time ago and I don't really know all the details," said one woman. She said she had been outraged by Rizzo and felt city officials had neglected to do their duty, but couldn't remember much else.
"I don't know the names and I don't remember the details so, no, I don't have an opinion of the people sitting here," the potential juror said.
Some expressed a lingering venom for the accused, saying they couldn't be impartial in the case.One woman wrote that the former city officials had "raped constituents" and filled their own pockets. Whenever she heard the word "Bell," she wrote, she felt nauseated.
Although one man said he had been a public employee for nearly three decades and had an "extremely negative, emotional response" to the news about Bell, nearly all the jurors said they had the ability to be impartial.
One woman seemed to sum up jurors' sentiments:
"To be honest I haven't paid very much attention," she said. "I just kind of dismissed it and, lo and behold, here I am."
-- Corina Knoll
Photo: Former Bell officials Victor Bello, from left, Luis Artiga, Oscar Hernandez, Angela Spaccia, George Mirabal and Robert Rizzo at a court appearance in their corruption case last year. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times