Bell trial: Prosecutor, ex-councilman at odds over salaries
The prosecutor in the corruption trial of six former Bell City Council members took aim Friday at a defendant’s claim that he voted to raise council salaries in order to diversify the panel in the largely immigrant city.
With George Cole on the witness stand, Deputy Dist. Atty. Edward Miller pointed out that fellow defendants Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal and Victor Bello already were on the council when he voted for the 2002 salary increase.
“So why did the salaries have to go up to get more Latino representation on the city council?” Miller asked.
“So it wouldn’t be a hardship for somebody to serve on the council,” Cole said.
Cole and the other defendants are accused of drawing oversized salaries for serving on city boards that did little work. By the time the salaries were disclosed, all but one of the council members were earning nearly $100,000 a year.
When Miller presented a document that ensured that no employee hired or council members elected after June 30, 2005, would be eligible for the city’s supplemental retirement plan, he asked Cole: “Wouldn’t taking away that benefit adversely affect Latino representation on the city council?”
Cole replied that it would.
“Did you vote for this because your friends on the city council and yourself would be covered?” Miller asked.
“It looks like I did.”
When Miller asked about the potential for a Bell council member to earn $100,000 — the salary of the other defendants — Cole appeared flustered. After being prodded several times, Cole admitted the resolutions made the salary possible.
Cole then pointed out that Los Angeles City Council members had a driver, car and staff. “I never had any of those,” he said.
“Did you feel you needed a driver and a chauffeur to get around a 2½-square-mile city?” Miller asked.
The judge reprimanded Cole several times for being unresponsive or speaking over the prosecutor’s questions.
“Mr. Cole, you will answer the questions that are asked of you unless something is sustained, do you understand?” Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy said.
The 63-year-old appeared to sidestep a question about a resolution he voted for that granted a 12% annual raise to the council and rescinded other resolutions.
After a long back-and-forth in which the defendant repeatedly said he didn’t understand the resolution's language, Cole echoed what he said Thursday about voting for the pay raise only because he feared backlash from then-City Manager Robert Rizzo.
“What did he say?” Miller asked.
“He didn’t have to say anything,” Cole said. “His attitude was very clear.”
Like the two defendants who testified before him, Cole pinned much of the blame on former City Attorney Edward Lee. Cole said Lee’s job was to let him know if his salary was illegal but that the issue never arose.
Cole testified that he lives in Huntington Park in a home he bought years ago with his parents. He said he also owns a two-bedroom home with his wife and sister in Cambria, near Hearst Castle. He purchased the home, he said, with an inheritance from his parents.
He said he was forced to sell his home in Bell to pay his attorney fees.
-- Jeff Gottlieb and Corina Knoll
Photo: George Cole in court on opening day of ongoing trial. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times