Bell council members guilty of multiple corruption counts
Five former Bell City Council members were found guilty Wednesday of stealing public money by paying themselves extraordinary salaries in one of Los Angeles County’s poorest cities.
But the verdicts in the four-week trial were decidedly mixed, as the defendants -- Victor Bello, George Cole, Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal -- were also found not guilty of some of the charges they faced. The sixth defendant, Luis Artiga, was found not guilty. The jury did not reach a verdict in about half the counts faced by five of the defendants.
The nearly $100,000 salaries drawn by most of the former elected officials are part of a much larger municipal corruption case in the southeast Los Angeles County city in which prosecutors allege that money from the city’s modest general fund flowed freely to top officials.
The three defendants who testified painted a picture of a city as a place led by a controlling, manipulative administrator who handed out enormous salaries, loaned city money and padded future pensions. Robert Rizzo, the former administrator, and former assistant city manager Angela Spaccia are awaiting trial.
The trial of the former council members turned on extremes.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Edward Miller said the council members were little more than common thieves who were consumed with fattening their paychecks at the expense of the city’s largely immigrant, working-poor residents.
Miller said the accused represented the “one-percenters" of Bell who had “apparently forgotten who they are and where they live."
Defense attorneys said the former city leaders -- one a pastor, another a mom-and-pop grocery store owner, another a funeral director -- were dedicated public servants who put in long hours and tirelessly responded to the needs of their constituents.
Jacobo testified Rizzo informed her she could quit her job as a real estate agent and receive a full-time salary as a council member. She said she asked City Atty. Edward Lee if that was possible and he nodded his head.
"I thought I was doing a very good job to be able to earn that, yes," Jacobo said.
Cole said Rizzo was so intimidating the former councilman voted for a 12% annual pay raise out of fear the city programs he established would be gutted by Rizzo in retaliation if he opposed the pay hikes.
The defense argued the prosecution failed to prove criminal negligence -- that their clients knew what they were doing was wrong or that a reasonable person would know it was wrong.
The attorney for Hernandez, the city’s mayor at the time of the arrests, said his client had only a grade-school education, was known more for his heart than his intellect and was, perhaps, not overly “scholarly.”Prosecutors argued the council members pushed up their salaries by serving on city boards that rarely met and, in one case, existed only as a means for paying them even more money.
Jurors were also left to deal with the question of whether council members were protected by a City Charter that was approved in a special election that drew fewer than 400 voters.
Defense attorneys say the charter allowed council members to be paid for serving on the authorities.
But the prosecutor argued the charter -- a quasi-constitution for a city -- set salaries at what councils in similar-sized cities were receiving under state law: $8,076 a year. Because council members automatically serve on boards and commissions, the district attorney said the total compensation for all of each council member's work was included in that figure.
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-- Corina Knoll and Kate Mather
Photo: Six former Bell city leaders, from left, George Mirabal, Luis Artiga, Teresa Jacobo, George Cole, Oscar Hernandez and Victor Bello, at their trial that started at Los Angeles County Superior Court in January. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times