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Calif. city corruption case goes to jury

  • Article by: LINDA DEUTSCH
  • Associated Press
  • February 22, 2013 - 6:48 PM

LOS ANGELES - The corruption case against six former officials of the scandal-ridden suburban city of Bell was placed in the hands of the jury Friday, with a prosecutor saying the officials had exploited the trust of a city to steal its money.

"They want to fool you like they fooled the people of Bell," Deputy District Attorney Ed Miller told jurors in his final argument. He urged them to reject the defense arguments that the former officials were good people.

"People start out with good intentions but get corrupted," he said. "They all suffered from an identity crisis. They were forgetting who they were."

Miller said the former mayors and council members presided over a tiny blue collar town where the median income was $35,000 a year but convinced themselves they were entitled to nearly six figure salaries. State law allowed them to be paid $673 a month for their council positions, which were part time jobs.

The jury deliberated for about six hours Friday before they were dismissed for the weekend. They're set to resume Monday.

In addition to their inflated council salaries, the officials appointed each other to commissions that did nothing and often met yearly just to increase their pay, Miller said. Some made $100,000 a year and authorities have estimated that a total of $5.5 million was taken from the city coffers.

The officials — former Mayor Oscar Hernandez, former Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo and former council members George Mirabal, George Cole, Victor Bello and Luis Artiga — face sentences ranging from 11 to 20 years in prison, if convicted of misappropriating funds

Their lawyers argued that they put in more time than was required and were dedicated to helping poor and ailing residents of Bell while improving schools and public facilities.

Miller ridiculed the argument that they earned all the money they received and put in massive amounts of unrequired time.

"If I work a few extra hours, should I go take $100 out of my boss' purse?" he said. "If $673 isn't enough, take your case to the public or get a job."

Defense lawyers nearly torpedoed the trial early Friday with a mistrial motion that resulted in a special instruction to jurors by Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy.

Attorney Ronald Kaye complained that Miller had violated one of the judge's rulings in his remarks Thursday. Miller had suggested that defense attorneys should have called city auditors as witnesses to support their claims that their salaries were legal.

"Where were the auditors?" he had asked jurors.

Kennedy said she had explicitly ordered no testimony by auditors because she did not want to create a mini-trial on that issue. She denied the mistrial but summoned jurors and told them to ignore the prosecutor's comments.

Miller urged jurors not to rely on the defendants' claims of good character.

"This was not a government of, by and for the people," he said. "This was government for themselves."

"They occupied positions of elevated trust where they could steal large amounts of money," he said.

Defense attorneys argued their clients were victims of a city attorney who never told them that what they were doing could be illegal.

In the midst of a national economic meltdown, the council members were drawing salaries 3 1/2 times that of the median income of a Bell resident, Miller said. But defense attorneys said the former officials saw no problem with the compensation.

Attorney Alex Kessel, speaking on behalf of Mirabal, said that on the night his client was arrested he had been out all day and evening doing good works for the city.

"They deserve the money they got," Kessel said. "This isn't stealing from the city. This is hard-earned money earned by hard working people."

After disclosure of the scandal in 2010, Bell residents revolted and turned out in the thousands to protest at City Council meetings. They ultimately staged a successful recall election in 2011, throwing out the entire council and electing a slate of new leaders.

An audit by the state controller's office found that 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.

Former city manager Robert Rizzo and his assistant city manager, Angela Spaccia, are to stand trial later this year.

"They say you can't fight city hall," Miller concluded. "That's not right. There's no city council more powerful than a jury. I'm asking you to hold the defendants responsible for the wrongs they committed."

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