Bell corruption trial: nearly 3 weeks later, still no verdict
Nearing the three-week mark, jurors in the Bell corruption trial resumed deliberations Thursday without any indication that a verdict is close.The four-week trial of Luis Artiga, Victor Bello, George Cole, Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal went to the jury Feb. 22 but deliberations have inched along. All of the defendants are accused of misappropriating public funds.
A juror dismissed for misconduct, an apparent deadlock and multiple questions and requests for testimony readbacks have pushed the panel into its 14th day of determining whether the defendants illegally boosted their annual salaries of up to $100,000 by drawing pay from serving on boards and authorities that rarely met.
It appears the jury is struggling to determine whether the paychecks issued were within the law: Excessive as they were for a town of about 35,000, could they still have been legal?
Although many -- including those in the city of Bell who ousted their high-paid officials -- believed the case to be an easy win for the prosecution, experts say the length of the jury deliberations could bode well for the defense.
The general rule of thumb when it comes to deliberations tends to be one day for every week of testimony, said veteran defense attorney Paul Wallin. Anything longer, he said, is a strong sign of a hung jury or at least a deadlock on some counts.
Another wild card is former City Administrator Robert Rizzo, who is most associated with the city's salary scandal. The defense has argued that council members relied on advice from the city attorney and that Rizzo was a controlling, strong-willed executive who manipulated them into taking the salaries. He and former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia face a separate trial later this year.
"The jurors may be searching for a smoking gun here and not finding one in their minds," said Dmitry Gorin, a Los Angeles criminal defense attorney.
"Maybe the jurors feel some sympathy for these council members," he said. "They heard some of them testify and they sounded unsophisticated. Did they know these meetings were a sham and a con to get pay?"
That case was initially tossed out in 2011 by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ralph W. Dau who said it was flawed and politically motivated. Dau said that because of legislative immunity, legislators cannot be sued for passing ordinances that award them high salaries.
The case, which sough restitution to the city of Bell for the defendants’ salaries, had been filed by then-Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown during his campaign for governor.
Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris later filed an appeal with the California Court of Appeals. Oral arguments were heard Tuesday. The court will issue a written decision, after which, the case could be taken to the California Supreme Court.
The suit names Bello, Cole, Hernandez, Jacobo, Mirabal, Rizzo, Spaccia and former Bell Police Chief Randy Adams.
-- Corina Knoll
Photo: Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Edward Miller makes closing argument in Bell corruption trial. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times