Los Angeles News

Bell corruption trial verdicts: Former mayor, 4 council members convicted; 1 acquitted

Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Former Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez appears in court on Wednesday, March 20, 2013. Former members of the Bell City Council appear in court on Wednesday, March 20, 2013. A Bell resident speaks with Eyewitness News on Wednesday, March 20, 2013.

Former Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez and four former council members were convicted Wednesday on multiple counts of misappropriation of public funds from the blue-collar city. Former Councilman Luis Artiga was acquitted on all counts.

The defendants - Hernandez, Artiga and former council members Teresa Jacobo, George Cole, George Mirabal and Victor Bello - faced 12 to 20 counts of misappropriation of public funds. A key question was whether they had lawful authority to give themselves hefty salaries.

For five weeks, jurors listened to the case presented by the prosecution, asserting that the city officials looted Bell's city treasury. The prosecution argued that as residents of a low-income city, they should have known that their salaries of $60,000 to $100,000 a year were excessive. But the defense said they relied on the guidance of professionals on staff, including the city attorney, who indicated in documents that the council members did act legally.

An audit by the state controller's office previously found the city had illegally raised property taxes, business license fees and other sources of revenue to pay the salaries. The office ordered the money repaid.

Artiga, who was the only defendant who had not served as mayor at some point, cried as the not guilty verdicts rolled in. He was the newest member of the City Council. He was acquitted of 12 counts of misappropriation, and the jury also found two special allegations to be not true. After the verdicts were read, Artiga looked at the jurors and said, "Thank you."

"I was hoping to God and I never lost faith through that moment," Artiga said outside the courtroom. "Although my stomach, you know, I felt (my) hands cold, but I just knew it."

The other verdicts were as follows: Hernandez, Jacobo and Mirabal were found guilty on five counts and acquitted on 5 other counts. Cole was found guilty on two counts and acquitted on two other counts. Bello was found guilty on four counts and acquitted on four other counts.

All were cleared of charges that they illegally tapped public money while serving on the city's Public Financing Authority. The waste authority was never created legally and met only once in 2006, which boosted pay by about $13,000 per member.

After the verdicts were read, Judge Kathleen Kennedy noted there were 10 deadlocked counts and asked the foreman if the panel had exhausted efforts to reach decisions. He said that was correct, but four other jurors told the judge they thought a verdict could be reached if they received more direction. Kennedy then ordered more deliberations after the lunch recess.

At about 3:15 p.m., the jury submitted several pages of requests for information to the judge before going home for the day. Jurors are expected to return Thursday morning to continue deliberations on the remaining charges.

A separate trial lies ahead for the alleged ringleader, former city manager Robert Rizzo, and his assistant, Angela Spaccia.

City records revealed that Rizzo had an annual salary and compensation package worth $1.5 million, making him one of the highest paid administrators in the country. Rizzo's salary alone was about $800,000 per year.

"They've been guilty for us for over 2 1/2 years," said Denisse Rodarte, a member of the Bell Association to Stop the Abuse. "We're living proof, we're living what they did to us, meaning that they left the city in nearly financial ruin. So the fact that they are found guilty in some of those counts is verification for us."

The current mayor, elected in a recall election shortly after the corruption case began, said the City Council has been working hard on getting residents to trust City Hall again.

"Me and my colleagues are working on a daily basis, we're bringing in good governance, transparency, and that's the focus that we're looking at," Mayor Ali Saleh said.

According to the current city manager, a balanced budget will be presented to the City Council in May.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

(Copyright ©2014 KABC-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)

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