Bell verdict: Convicted council members may avoid jail
The five Bell council members convicted of misappropriating public funds by accepting hefty paychecks for work they never did may escape jail sentences, a legal expert said.
Criminal defense attorney Troy Slaten said the council members are not required to be jailed. They could instead be put on probation and perform community service.
Ex-Mayor Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal were each found guilty of five counts of misappropriation of funds relating to the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority between Jan. 1, 2006, and July 26, 2010.
George Cole and Victor Bello also were found guilty of misappropriation of funds from the same department: Cole of two counts between Jan. 1, 2006, and Dec. 31, 2007; and Bello of four counts between Jan. 1, 2006, and Dec. 31, 2009.
But each of those five ex-council members were found not guilty for the same counts related to the Public Finance Authority during the same time periods.
Despite a four-week trial and 18 days of deliberations, the jury remained undecided on about half of the counts, allegations related to the Community Housing and Surplus Property authorities. The jury told the judge it was split 9 to 3 on the remaining counts, but did not indicate whether jurors were leaning toward guilty or not guilty.
It remains unclear whether Judge Kathleen Kennedy will order the jury to continue deliberating, or declare panelists deadlocked on the remaining charges.
The Bell Assn. to Stop the Abuse, also called BASTA, issued a statement expressing relief by the jury's guilty verdict, but asked the judge to give the former council members stern sentences.
Vasgo Derparsghian, 48, said from behind the counter of his Bell Discount Cigarettes that he's tired of the case.
" I just want them to go to jail," Derparsghian said. "I don't know why it took such a long time, man. Two and a half years, come on, man."
Derparsghian said he was "99% sure they were not going to walk free" despite the jury's 18 days of deliberations.
The jury did not reach a decision on the special allegations that the defendants took property exceeding $65,000 and $100,000.
Oscar Hernandez's attorney Stanley Friedman said the verdicts so far give the defendants a chance at probation. If they are convicted of the special allegations, it would be harder for a judge to give them probation, Friedman said.
"So we are hoping for probation but we will obviously appeal," Friedman said.With the convictions, the legal spotlight now shifts to Robert Rizzo – the man who served as the chief executive in the small, working-poor city.
Rizzo faces 69 counts that include misappropriating city funds and loaning city money to friends, colleagues and a business owner.
Although his fate is probably months away, defense attorneys in the trial of the former council members eagerly heaped all blame on Rizzo, who was fired in 2010 when his near-$800,000 salary and generous benefits package was revealed.The lawyer for George Cole, one of the now-convicted ex-council members, brushed off Rizzo as "the thief, the fraud, the destructor of the city.” Another said: “We are here for Mr. Rizzo’s sins.”
-- Richard Winton
Photo: Oscar Hernandez, one of five former Bell City Council members, was found guilty of stealing public money on Monday. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times