Jurors deciding the case of six former officials of Bell, California, charged with looting public funds begin their fourth week without a verdict as deliberations drag on as long as the one-month trial.
The jury, weighing the case of alleged wrongdoing in a blue-collar suburb from a downtown Los Angeles courthouse, ended last week by reviewing evidence, including testimony from Bell councilwoman Teresa Jacobo about a conversation she had with former city manager Robert Rizzo regarding pay.
Jacobo, 55, Oscar Hernandez, 65, 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 a few minutes.
The state court trial didn’t include Rizzo, who was charged with 53 counts of misappropriation and conflict of interest. He was 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.
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 in California under scrutiny. The median salary for the state's city managers in 2009 was $187,728, according to California's controller’s office.
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.
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 have 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.
Kopp said Jacobo was a hard-working and caring person who relied on the advice of Rizzo and city attorney Ed Lee, who both told her the salary was legal.
The case is People v. Hernandez, BA376025, California Superior Court, Los Angeles County (Los Angeles).