Ex-Bell, California, Council Members Found Guilty by Jury
The jury that convicted five former members of Bell, California’s council of misappropriating public funds may need to deliberate further on charges for which the panel couldn’t reach a verdict.
The Los Angeles state court jury acquitted one of six defendants yesterday in its fourth week of deliberations following a four-week trial. Jurors told the judge they couldn’t reach a consensus on a total of 42 counts against the other five defendants.
Oscar Hernandez, 65, Teresa Jacobo, 55, George Mirabal, 63 Luis Artiga, 52, George Cole, 63, and Victor Bello, 54, were accused of misappropriating about $1.2 million in public funds by getting paid almost $8,000 a month for attending board meetings that prosecutors said never took place or lasted only a few minutes. Artiga was acquitted on all counts.
The jury found the other five guilty for payments they received as members of the solid waste and recycling authority and not guilty for payments as members of the public financing authority. Jurors didn’t return verdicts for the payments the five received for sitting on the surplus property authority and the community housing authority.
Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy sent the jury home and said that today she would address written questions provided by the jurors who told her that further instruction and deliberation might help them reach a verdict on the remaining charges.
The trial didn’t include former city manager Robert Rizzo, who was charged with 53 counts of misappropriation and conflict of interest and accused of giving about $1.9 million in unauthorized loans to himself and others. Rizzo and former assistant city manager Angela Spaccia will be tried in a separate case.
Bell, located about 10 miles (16 kilometers) southeast of Los Angeles, has five council members who serve part-time and select the city’s mayor from among themselves. The median household income of the city’s residents is $37,121 and 93 percent of them are Hispanic, according to U.S. Census data. Twenty-five percent live below the poverty line.
All eight of the officials were arrested in September 2010 and accused of misappropriating more than $5.5 million. The Bell scandal, with Rizzo receiving $800,000 a year to run a city of 38,000, has put the pay of municipal executives under scrutiny. The median salary for California’s city managers in 2009 was $187,728, according to the state controller’s office.
Representatives of the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office didn’t return a call for comment yesterday on the verdicts that were returned.
Stanley Friedman, a lawyer for Hernandez, said outside the courtroom that he was encouraged by the not-guilty verdicts.
“I want to thank the jury from the bottom of my heart,” Artiga said at a press conference. “God bless them.”
“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,” Bell Mayor Ali Saleh said in a statement.
In a separate case, a state court of appeals yesterday reinstated a lawsuit brought by California Attorney General Kamala Harris who, on behalf of the city, seeks to hold the defendants in the two criminal cases liable for the losses they caused to Bell.
Prosecutors alleged that the six former council members on trial were paid for “phantom” committee meetings on four boards, the Solid Waste Authority, Surplus Property Authority, Public Finance Authority and Community Housing Authority, from the start of 2006 through July 2010.
Lawyers for the six defendants argued that their clients were unaware that the compensation they received was tied to specific boards rather than part of their overall salary as council members.
Shepard Kopp, Jacobo’s lawyer, said in his closing argument that the prosecution failed to prove Jacobo knew the payments she received weren’t legally authorized or that she should have known they were legally unauthorized.
“There is no limit on what council members could be paid for their service on the various authorities they worked on,” Kopp told the jury. “There was affirmative legal authority that allowed them to receive these payments.”
The case is People v. Hernandez, BA376025, California Superior Court, Los Angeles County (Los Angeles).
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