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Bell 8 to ask for criminal charges to be tossed out

September 8, 2011 |  1:50 pm

Ribert rizzo in court 
Defense attorneys for the so-called Bell 8 said Thursday they intend to file motions to dismiss the charges against their clients based on a recent state Supreme Court ruling that says prosecutors in public corruption cases must prove that defendants knew they were breaking the law, or were criminally negligent in not knowing.

Former administrators and politicians in Bell are accused of siphoning money from the city’s treasury to pay themselves extravagant wages and generous retirement benefits and take personal loans

After the Supreme Court issued the ruling in August, former Bell City Administrator Robert Rizzo asked for the charges against him to be dropped. Attorneys for former council members accused in the case said Thursday they planned to file a consolidated motion this month in an effort to have the charges dismissed against their clients.

"The bottom line is in order to be convicted of this crime, somebody does have to have bad intent -- there just wasn't any on the record," said Stanley Friedman, who represents former Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez.

Daniel Nixon, the attorney for former Bell Councilwoman Teresa Jacobo, said there is no proof that any of the accused -- including former council members Luis Artiga, Victor Bello, George Cole and George Mirabal and Rizzo's former assistant Angela Spaccia -- had any idea they were breaking the law as they accepted the bloated salaries, top-of-the-line retirement benefits and personal loans from the city.

"Their actions were entirely within the authority of law; they were performed in open sessions in a transparent way with the oversight and approval of the city attorney," Nixon said.

Council members are charged with being paid for sitting on city boards that met for only a few minutes at a time, if at all. The majority of the council's near-$100,000 salaries came from what one judge called "sham agencies."

In 2005, a grand jury indicted Sutter County Auditor-Controller Robert Stark on felony charges after he allegedly made arbitrary policy changes, including filing a late budget, withholding overtime pay from firefighters and transferring money from a general fund reserve to a waterworks district.

The case inched its way to the Supreme Court, which handed down a 60-page ruling that, for the first time in more than eight decades, clarified the necessary mental state to be convicted of misappropriating public funds.

Prosecutors, however, said they were confident the charges would be upheld.

"We don't really feel ...  what the public officials knew is going to have a long-term impact on the case," Deputy Dist. Atty. Max Huntsman said. "We believe there's very powerful evidence of knowledge and intent."

Hearings for the motions to dismiss are scheduled for November.


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-- Corina Knoll

Photo: Robert Rizzo in court in March. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times