Steve Lopez on Bell verdict: It wasn’t a clean sweep
And it was only the preliminary round, with bigger fish still in the pond.
But the word “guilty” was uttered over and over again as verdicts were read Wednesday in the “corruption on steroids” trial of six former city of Bell officials caught up in one of the most outrageous scandals in recent Southern California history.
Victor Bello, George Cole, George Mirabel, Teresa Jacobo and Oscar Hernandez were found guilty of a range of charges including misappropriation of funds and fraudulently compensating themselves, but not guilty of other charges. The jurors, who had dozens of charges to sort through, deliberated 18 days.
Only Luis Artiga, a pastor and former councilman, got away clean, acquitted on all counts.
This is the crew that turned part-time public service into personal windfall, taking home nearly $100,000 a year for jobs that pay closer to $8,000 in towns of similar size. Their take-home was padded by exorbitant payment for sitting on boards and authorities that rarely met or did much of anything, according to prosecutors.
Rizzo’s upcoming trial is of course a separate matter, but Wednesday's guilty verdicts don’t bode well for him, especially because the now-convicted defendants had blamed the scandal on him, with one saying he was intimidated by Rizzo.
Rizzo’s former assistant, Angela Spaccia, will also have her day in court. This will give her a chance to explain her nearly $400,000 salary in the working-class community where some residents have told me they were turned away for years when they tried to ask questions about the stench at City Hall. As city officials stuffed their wallets, taxes on citizens went up and services got the ax.
BASTA, the Bell Assn. to Stop Abuse, seemed as though it couldn’t wait to send out its reaction to the verdicts, saying the group “applauds the jury’s guilty verdict of the Bell Six” and urges a stiff sentence.
Denise Rodarte, BASTA co-founder, emailed me to say she was happy about the guilty verdicts but not so happy with some of the not-guilty verdicts.
“I do not think we will have justice until everyone is found guilty and there is some restitution,” said Rodarte, who added she is working to make sure this never happens again in Bell. “Our work is far from over and I think it will be a long time before the public’s and my trust is truly rebuilt.”
-- Steve Lopez
Photos: Former Bell council member George Cole, who is charged with misappropriation of public funds, listens to closing arguments. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times