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Bell trial: Jury due back in court to discuss undecided charges

A day after delivering mixed verdicts to six ex-Bell City Council members accused of stealing public money, jurors will return to court Thursday morning to address their continued deadlock on nearly half the counts the defendants faced.

The jury is due back in Judge Kathleen Kennedy's courtroom at 9 a.m., though it remains unclear if the panel will continue to deliberate on the undecided charges. Wednesday's verdicts came on the 18th day of deliberations.

Also unclear is if and how Kennedy or the attorneys involved will address last-minute questions submitted by the jury Wednesday. Hours after the verdicts were read, jurors submitted questions that raised questions about whether they were unanimous in their verdicts, ending the day on a chaotic note.

CHEAT SHEET: Bell corruption verdicts

In a cryptic note, Juror No. 7 told Kennedy that he had misgivings about the deliberations, saying he "questioned myself on information that had me on a [doubt] of thing [sic] that were not presented properly."

Defense attorney Ron Kaye, who represents former Councilman George Cole, told the judge that the juror's note suggested he might have been persuaded to vote a certain way. But Kennedy rejected his request to talk to the juror.

“That's done, we're not going to reopen verdicts that have been reached,” Kennedy said.

FULL COVERAGE: Bell corruption trial

In another note, Juror No. 10 said that she believes the jury is "getting away from your instructions" and possibly misunderstanding a law on "several levels." Defense attorney Stanley Friedman, who represents former mayor Oscar Hernandez, said the comments raised the possibility of jury misconduct.

Legal expert Dimitry Gorin, a criminal defense attorney, said the late-developments in the Bell trial and verdicts is out of the ordinary.

“Questions from the jury as a collective aren’t unusual, but individual questions are rare and what is happening here is highly unusual and unique,” Gorin said.

Gorin said Kennedy has a lot of discretion over what she chooses to discuss with jurors.

When Kennedy rejected a request by Kaye to question Juror No. 7, she noted that the defense attorneys had already waived the opportunity to poll the jurors one by one after the verdicts were read.

As a defense attorney, Gorin said he makes it a practice to always poll the jury because of the possibility that a juror might change their mind.

“It’s surprising they passed on that here,” Gorin said.

Gorin said the juror’s questions raise potential issues about the verdict.

“Any time a juror says the jury is getting away from instructions, I would be greatly concerned,” Gorin said. “The judge here seems to think they are talking about the undecided counts.”

Prosecutors charged the officials with misappropriating public funds by exceeding pay limits established in state law and the city's own charter. The prosecution had argued that the six defendants overpaid themselves by sitting on city boards and authorities that did little work and that council members in a city the size of Bell can only legally earn an annual salary of $8,076.

Ex-City Administrator Robert Rizzo and his assistant Angela Spaccia are also accused in the corruption scandal. They will stand trial later this year.

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Bell: Appellate court rules city can seek restitution for salaries

Former Bell City Administrator Robert Rizzo appears in Los Angeles County Superior Court in February 2012 for proceedings in the criminal case against himself and former Assistant City Administrator Angela Spaccia, who are charged with misappropriation of public funds and other counts. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

A California Court of Appeal said Wednesday the state attorney general can seek full restitution against eight former Bell officials in a civil suit.

"Today marks the beginning of a new dawn for Bell and its residents," Mayor Ali Saleh said. "We are very pleased with the outcome of today's court decision."

The announcement is more bad news for five of the six former Bell council members who were found guilty Wednesday of misappropriating public funds. It also may pose a problem for Luis Artiga, the only defendant exonerated in the corruption trial, who is seeking payment from the city for his legal fees.

CHEAT SHEET: Bell corruption verdicts

Two years ago, the former officials claimed the city owed them collectively in excess of $4 million in legal defense fees, according to city officials.

Now they face well in excess of that amount in restitution claims, officials say.

That case names ex-City Administrator Robert Rizzo, his assistant Angela Spaccia, former police Chief Randy Adams, and the five former councilmembers who were convicted Wednesday: Victor Bello, George Cole, Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal.

FULL COVERAGE: Bell corruption trial

Rizzo and Spaccia will both stand trial later this year.

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Bell trial: Hours after verdicts, tensions flare at City Hall

For most Bell citizens, it should have been a night to celebrate.

There was even cake — chocolate — with the word “GUILTY” written in pink frosting.

“This is probably one of the most successful days we’ve had in terms of getting back to the justice this community deserves,” said Bell City Atty. David Aleshire at Wednesday night’s City Council meeting.

CHEAT SHEET: Bell corruption verdicts

In one day, a jury had announced convictions for five of six former Bell council members on trial for corruption, and an appeals court allowed a case to proceed that might allow the city to recoup some of the bloated salaries it paid its officials.

But just hours later, the public’s jubilation was riven by infighting that forced an early adjournment before any council business was addressed.

Tensions during the public comment period, some say over the results of a recent election, boiled over in shouting matches.

FULL COVERAGE: Bell corruption trial

“We all fought this together, before this unfortunate division came in our city,” said Ismael Morales. “Even though we have a new council, we still have a lot to fix,” he added, saying that taxes in the city were still too high.

But moments later, Morales and the council members engaged in a testy exchange.

At one point during the argument, Mayor Ali Saleh stormed out of the meeting. “With the cameras on, we show a classless city,” muttered one audience member after he left, a row of TV cameras swooshing to capture his exit. Someone shouted about another recall.

TIMELINE: 'Corruption on steroids'

Others pleaded with fellow residents to help the city move on. “It’s time to grow up,” said Alfred Areyan, a longtime resident. “It’s time to get our community on the right track.” 

The meeting was adjourned after Police Chief Anthony Miranda said he could not control the rowdy crowd. “We are moving backward,” he pleaded with the crowd, amid still more yelling, evocative of the contentious meetings after Bell’s high salaries were first discovered. “This is 2013 and it feels like 2010."

“It just basically shows that we’re a divided city,” said Councilman Danny Harber, who was unseated in the recent election and was celebrating his last meeting. “It doesn’t bode well for the city.”

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L.A. Now Live: Discuss the Bell corruption trial, verdicts

Bell verdict: 'I want to thank God,' acquitted ex-councilman says

— Christine Mai-Duc in Bell

L.A. Now Live: Discuss the Bell corruption trial, verdicts

After weeks of deliberations, a Los Angeles County jury convicted five of six Bell officials Wednesday on multiple counts of misappropriating public funds.

It was a mixed bag of guilty and not guilty verdicts for the group, some of whom cried as the verdicts were read. One councilman, Luis Artiga, was acquitted of each charge he faced.

Times staffers Richard Winton and Kimi Yoshino will join L.A. Now Live at 9 a.m. Thursday for a live discussion about the verdicts. Questions can be submitted during the chat.

FULL COVERAGE: Bell corruption trial    

The jury failed to reach a verdict for several charges, with four jurors telling the judge that if they were given more time and additional information, they might be able to reach a verdict.

The judge ordered the jury to return at 9 a.m. Thursday, but it is unclear whether she will ask them to continue deliberating.

At the end of the day, the jurors sent several questions to the judge that ended the day on a chaotic note and raised questions about whether they were unanimous in their verdicts.

CHEAT SHEET: Bell corruption verdicts

In a note, Juror No. 7 told Judge Kathleen Kennedy that he had misgivings about the deliberations.

The cryptic note said that the juror "questioned myself on information that had me on a [doubt] of thing [sic] that were not presented properly."

Defense attorney Ron Kaye, who represents former Councilman George Cole, told the judge that the juror's note suggested he might have been persuaded to vote a certain way.

"Our ultimate goal is to reach the truth," Kaye said. "Can we separate Juror No. 7, ask him to discuss what he meant and if it was in fact his verdict? These [defendants] deserve to have an honest deliberation. I would ask that we be permitted to inquire." 

But Kennedy said she did not interpret the note from Juror No. 7 that way.

“That's done, we're not going to reopen verdicts that have been reached,” Kennedy said.

The focus will soon turn to former City Administrator Robert Rizzo, the face of the Bell corruption scandal that rocked the working-class town in 2010.

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Reaction from Bell: ‘Rizzo is next!’

Bell justice

Activists who led a fight for reform in Bell following the city’s salary scandal in 2010 gathered outside City Hall on Wednesday afternoon to celebrate the convictions of five former council members.

All but one of the six ex-council members accused of misappropriating public funds with their oversized salaries had been found guilty on multiple charges earlier in the day. One of the former leaders, also a pastor in town, was acquitted on all counts.

Wearing red shirts with the group’s name – BASTA, or Bell Assn. to Stop the Abuse – the group carried signs reading “"Rizzo Is Next!" and "We Want Jail Time for the Guilty." The trial for the city's former top administrator, Robert Rizzo, will take place later this year.

CHEAT SHEET: Bell corruption verdicts

But once the TV cameras vanished, the city activists talked about the meaning of the verdicts.

"They found them guilty on enough, on the important counts," said Robert Mackin, a 78-year-old retiree who lives in Bell.

As for Luis Artiga's acquittal, Mackin said he wasn’t surprised.

FULL COVERAGE: Bell corruption trial

"He wasn’t as guilty as the rest of them. They kept him in the dark."

Fellow BASTA member Adriana Miramontes disagreed.

"We have a saying in Spanish," she said. "The person holding down the cow is as guilty as the one killing it."

Miramontes, who has lived in Bell 23 years, said she was overwhelmed when news first broke in 2010 of the scope of the alleged corruption on the council. Many of the city leaders she had known for years.

"How can you do this to your own community and your own friends?"

She was also saddened that her community seemed to lack the same unity that had bound them in those first days of outrage, back when they first learned how much their city leaders were earning. Back then, hundreds of angry residents descended on City Hall, demanding change.

"At the beginning it was a team effort, but I guess people got tired of being pulled in different directions," she said.

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Bell trial: Former D.A. calls verdicts 'step in the right direction'

Cooley Bell
The former district attorney who called Bell's scandalous salaries "corruption on steroids" called Wednesday's guilty verdicts "a step in the right direction."

Former Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley spoke about the verdicts Wednesday afternoon at a retirement lunch for a longtime spokeswoman for the D.A.'s office. Cooley, who retired in December, said the jury's decision proved prosecutors were "conscientious and accurate" in filing charges.

"There are still some chapters that need to be written in terms of the justice system's response to the Bell scandal, namely Rizzo and Spaccia," Cooley said, referring to two other ex-city officials still awaiting trial. "We will wait for that to be resolved in a couple of months, but I think this is a step in the right direction."

CHEAT SHEET: Bell corruption verdicts

The salaries earned by officials in the small, blue-collar town made national headlines in 2010 and resulted in one of the largest corruption cases in Los Angeles County history. Former City Administrator Robert Rizzo made nearly $800,000; his former assistant Angela Spaccia earned nearly $400,000 annually; and the six other ex-council members that stood trial received salaries of almost $100,000.

Five of those last six ex-officials were convicted on some counts of public corruption on Wednesday.

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.

FULL COVERAGE: Bell corruption trial

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.

Luis Artiga, whose verdict was read last, was acquitted of each of the counts he faced.

TIMELINE: 'Corruption on steroids'

But 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.

Several jurors said they did not believe there was anything else that could be done to help them reach a verdict. But four jurors said they could use additional information about state laws.

The jurors handed Judge Kathleen Kennedy several questions after lunch, but she postponed further discussion about continued deliberations and ordered jurors to return Thursday at 9 a.m.

The jury told Kennedy that the vote was 9 to 3 on the remaining counts, but did not indicate whether they were leaning toward guilty or not guilty.

"We are in receipt of your questions, but we are not ready to respond to you quite yet," Kennedy said before sending them home.

Cooley said he would need more information about "what the issues may have been that led to the not guilty verdicts, but said "the fact that a number of them are guilty is very positive."

"I hope that public entities both here in Los Angeles County and elsewhere get a message that they cannot all loot the public treasury with abandon," he said. "At least in Los Angeles County, there's been someone who will pursue it. It was the case when I was D.A., and it's the case with Jackie Lacey as D.A."

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— Kate Mather, Andrew Blankstein and Jack Leonard

Photo: Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley announced the indictment of eight Bell city officials in September 2010. Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times

Bell trial: Jury's late notes throw verdicts into question, chaos

Hours after delivering a mixed verdict in the corruption trial of six Bell council members, a Los Angeles jury sent several questions to the judge that ended the day on a chaotic note and raised questions about whether they were unanimous in their verdicts.

The jury convicted five of six former council members of stealing from the working-class city of Bell after 18 days of deliberations – longer than the trial itself. The jury remains undecided on nearly half the counts.

The judge ordered the jury to return to court Thursday, though it remains unclear if the panel will continue to deliberate on the undecided charges.

CHEAT SHEET: Bell corruption verdicts

The jury returned to court after a lunch break because four of them indicated that more information might help them reach verdicts in the undecided counts.

Jurors were allowed to send questions to the judge. In a note, Juror No. 7 told Judge Kathleen Kennedy that he had misgivings about the deliberations.

The cryptic note said that the juror "questioned myself on information that had me on a [doubt] of thing [sic] that were not presented properly."

FULL COVERAGE: Bell corruption trial

Defense attorney Ron Kaye, who represents former councilman George Cole, told the judge that the juror's note suggested he might have been persudaded to vote a certain way.

"Our ultimate goal is to reach the truth," Kaye said. "Can we separate Juror No. 7, ask him to discuss what he meant and if it was in fact his verdict? These [defendants] deserve to have an honest deliberation. I would ask that we be permitted to inquire." 

But Kennedy said she did not interpret the note from Juror No. 7 that way.

“That's done, we're not going to reopen verdicts that have been reached,” Kennedy said.

Defense attorney Stanley Friedman, who represents former mayor Oscar Hernandez, raised questions about a second note from a different juror.

Juror No. 10's note said that she believes the jury is "getting away from your instructions" and possibly misunderstanding a law on "several levels."

Friedman said the note raises the possibility of jury misconduct.

The verdicts were decidedly mixed, with the jury returning guilty verdicts and acquittals in even measure. One councilman, a pastor in the small city, was acquitted on all charges, offering a prayer as the verdicts rolled in.

The jurors handed Kennedy several questions after lunch, but she postponed further discussion about continued deliberations. The jury was ordered to return Thursday at 9 a.m.

The jury told Kennedy that the vote was 9 to 3 on the remaining counts, but did not indicate whether they were leaning toward guilty or not guilty.

"We are in receipt of your questions, but we are not ready to respond to you quite yet," Kennedy said before sending them home.

City officials In Bell said the verdicts signified a "long-awaited day of justice" to the city's residents, according to a statement Wednesday.

But Mayor Ali Saleh said the working-class community was waiting to see how the rest of the case would play out. Former City Administrator Robert Rizzo -- whose $800,000-a-year salary sparked the scandal -- and his former assistant Angela Spaccia, who earned nearly $400,000 annually, will both stand trial at a later date.

"While today's guilty ruling for five of the Bell Six helps bring some closure and justice to our community, there are still trial cases which remain pending — the trials of those remaining assailants that in my view plundered our city's resources and shackled Bell's hardworking families with an overwhelming tax burden," Saleh said in a statement.

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Bell verdict: Jury sent home, no decision on more deliberations

The jury in the Bell corruption trial was sent home after lunch on Wednesday and no decision was made whether to force them to resume deliberations on the remaining undecided counts.

The jurors handed Judge Kathleen Kennedy several questions after lunch, but she postponed further discussion about continued deliberations. The jury was ordered to return Thursday at 9 a.m.

After a four-week trial and 18 days of deliberations, the jury delivered a mixed bag of verdicts for the so-called Bell Six. The jury found five of the defendants guilty on some charges but cleared them of others, and acquitted another, Luis Artiga, entirely.

CHEAT SHEET: Bell corruption verdicts

The jury remained undecided on about half the counts the defendants faced. Several jurors said they did not believe there was anything else that could be done to help them reach a verdict, but four said they could use additional information about state laws.

The jury told Kennedy that the vote was 9 to 3 on the remaining counts, but did not indicate whether they were leaning toward guilty or not guilty.

"As much as I hate to do this, I think the court needs to inquire further," Kennedy told them after the verdicts were read. "I know you thought this was going to be the end and I was going to be releasing you."

FULL COVERAGE: Bell corruption trial

They took a lunch break and returned at 2 p.m.

It is unclear what questions the jurors asked the judge.

"We are in receipt of your questions, but we are not ready to respond to you quite yet," Kennedy said before sending them home.

Continue reading »

Bell verdict: Convicted council members may avoid jail

 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

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.

CHEAT SHEET: Bell corruption verdicts

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.

FULL COVERAGE: Bell corruption trial

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.

TIMELINE: 'Corruption on steroids'

" 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.

DOCUMENT: Read the charges

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.”

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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

Bell trial: Robert Rizzo now the focus

Robert Rizzo and Angela Spaccia in court last year. Credit: Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times.

With the conviction of five former Bell council members on multiple corruption-related charges, 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, a ranging checklist of alleged wrong-doings – from misappropriating city funds to loaning out city money to friends, colleagues and a business owner.

While his fate is likely 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.

FULL COVERAGE: Bell corruption trial

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.”  Said  another: “We are here for Mr. Rizzo’s sins.”

During the four-week trial, defendants and attorneys described the former city manager as a controlling, forceful and vengeful manager who used the high salaries as a way to keep city leaders in check.

One former councilman said Rizzo all but forced him to take a lucrative salary and grew angry when the councilman chafed at being paid so much.

INDICTMENT: Rizzo, Spaccia

Much of the testimony in the council trial could be damning for Rizzo.

The city clerk said documents were forged, and that at Rizzo’s direction, she tricked the city’s mayor by slipping a contract into a stack of otherwise ho-hum resolutions for him to sign.

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About L.A. Now
L.A. Now is the Los Angeles Times’ breaking news section for Southern California. It is produced by more than 80 reporters and editors in The Times’ Metro section, reporting from the paper’s downtown Los Angeles headquarters as well as bureaus in Costa Mesa, Long Beach, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, Riverside, Ventura and West Los Angeles.
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