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Bell council took money from the poor, D.A. says

February 20, 2013 |  3:05 pm

Deputy Dist. Atty. Edward Miller presents closing arguments in the trial of former Bell officials on Wednesday. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

The prosecutor in the Bell corruption case took aim at the six defendants in his closing statement Wednesday, saying that instead of serving their low-income community they were more interested in fattening their wallets.

“I’m talking about taking big money — money from poor people, money from tenants in low-income housing,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Edward Miller said.

Miller said the defendants tried to hide salaries of as much as $100,000 a year. He said that when a resident asked them during a council meeting how much they made, it took a City Council member five seconds to respond.

FULL COVERAGE: Bell corruption trial

The prosecutor held up his hand and counted on his fingers: “1,000, 2,000, 3,000, 4,000, 5,000.”

The six former council members are accused of boosting their salaries with pay from city boards that met seldom, if ever. State law said they should have been paid $673 a month, according to Miller.

The prosecutor said that  despite the defendants’ testimony about their hours of devotion to the city, it was clear they had not acted out of selflessness.

“All this extra stuff they said they did, all the good they did for the community, all the selfless acts they said they performed — well, why not tell the public that the $673 I signed up for when I took this job just is not enough, look at all I do?” Miller asked.

Although much of the defense has pinned the blame on the former city manager, Miller said, “Robert Rizzo wasn’t trying to mislead them, they’re trying to mislead the public.”

During his 77-minute statement, Miller, at times sarcastic and mocking, took care to tear down each of the defendants.

For former Councilman George Cole, who testified that he had only voted for a 12% annual raise because he feared Rizzo, Miller said: “Boy, I sure wish my boss would threaten me with a raise.”

He asked the jury to imagine what that conversation sounded like:

“Don’t pay me. I must. Please don’t pay me. I must, I must pay you your illegal salary. No! Yes! No! Yes! … It just didn’t happen.”

Referring to the nonprofit foundation Cole headed for a $95,000 a year salary, Miller said it was “pretty profitable to him.”

Calling out former Councilman Victor Bello’s work with a food bank — for which he was paid the same as his council salary — Miller said it was impossible for the former councilman to not know what he was doing was wrong.

“Every time one of the recipients looked at him as an angel of mercy, they were actually looking at nothing more than a charlatan, a fake, a phony, a $100,000-a-year volunteer,” he said. “What a scam.”

Miller pointed out that defendants George Mirabal had been a city clerk, that Teresa Jacobo was a real estate agent and that Oscar Hernandez ran his own business, making them capable people.

“Uncontroverted evidence showed that they just weren’t ‘yes men,’ except when it came to pay raises for themselves.”

Former Councilman Luis Artiga, who was appointed to the council in 2008 when Cole resigned, had a responsibility to determine the appropriateness of his salary, Miller said.

Miller also lambasted the defendants’ work on the four boards from which they are charged with drawing their exorbitant salaries. He called the authorities, “nothing more than an alias — another name for the same group of people doing the same thing. Another title, another name. A rose is a rose is a rose.”

He said that by state law, the members of the Community Housing Authority could only be paid for four meetings a month, with a salary not to exceed $50 a meeting. The Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, which would have been responsible for trash collection, was never even legally established, Miller said.

“The solid waste plant never got sketched — not on a blackboard, not on any kind of proposal, not even on a cocktail napkin.”


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Photo: Deputy Dist. Atty. Edward Miller presents closing arguments in the trial of former Bell officials Wednesday. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times