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Bell scandal was 'half-circus, half-heartbreak,' attorney says

 Former Bell mayor Oscar Hernandez in court. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

Bell’s former mayor was a man who threw himself full time into his civic work — a leader with a big heart and the time to listen to everyone’s problems, his attorney told jurors Thursday in the ongoing corruption trial of six former city leaders.

In contrast to the spirited oratory from other defense attorneys, Oscar Hernandez’s lawyer spoke with a soft, measured rhythm in describing his client, a one-time grocery store owner now charged with misappropriating public funds.

“Those are the kind of officials that we elect, we elect people who have a good heart.… Somebody who can shake your hand and look you in the eye, someone who can listen to your problem,” Stanley L. Friedman said.

FULL COVERAGE: Bell corruption trial

He said it was unrealistic to expect politicians to always be well versed in the law -– a point underscored by other defense attorneys who contend their clients were assured by city officials the huge salaries they were drawing were legal.

“We had a vice president of the United States who didn’t know how to spell potato, remember that?” Friedman said, referring to Dan Quayle.

The defense attorney also brought up professional wrestler Jesse Ventura, who became governor of Minnesota, as well as former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, “whose qualification was he portrayed a killer robot in movies.”

Politicians, Friedman said, tend to be elected because they are well liked.

“There’s a lot of elected officials who we have quite a bit of respect for who maybe, maybe, weren’t the most scholarly,” he said. “… We don’t elect somebody who took some test and then got the highest score on his knowledge of laws.”

He pointed to Justice Department officials under George W. Bush who wrote opinions supporting waterboarding. One is now a federal appeals court judge and the other is a law professor.

“People make mistakes,” Friedman said. “The older I get and the older we get, we realize people make mistakes.”

Friedman called the situation in Bell two years ago “half-circus and half-heartbreak.”

He stressed the real issue for the jury was determining criminal negligence.

He then showed a list of about a dozen employees who worked for Bell during Hernandez’s tenure, including city attorney Edward Lee, administrator Lourdes Garcia, City Clerk Rebecca Valdez and the police chief.

“What do all these people have in common? None of them told any of these defendants, including Mr. Hernandez, that the salaries were illegal.”

Unlike those on his list, Hernandez never attended college, Friedman said.

“How is he supposed to know if something is illegal or not?”

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--Corina Knoll and Jeff Gottlieb

Photo: Former Bell mayor Oscar Hernandez in court. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times 

 
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L.A. Now is the Los Angeles Times’ breaking news section for Southern California. It is produced by more than 80 reporters and editors in The Times’ Metro section, reporting from the paper’s downtown Los Angeles headquarters as well as bureaus in Costa Mesa, Long Beach, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, Riverside, Ventura and West Los Angeles.
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