Bell Council Corruption Charges to Be Decided by California Jury

Six former officials of Bell, California, will have their fate decided by a jury as a trial comes to an end over allegations they looted public funds from the Latino, blue-collar suburb of Los Angeles.

Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Edward Miller said today in his closing argument that the former city council members put themselves above the law by awarding themselves lavish salaries for sitting on boards that either never or hardly ever met.

“This was a city turned upside down by a culture of corruption,” Miller told jurors in state court in downtown Los Angeles. “These defendants did not have the residents of Bell at the top of their chart. The electorate was at the bottom.”

Oscar Hernandez, 65, Teresa Jacobo, 55, George Mirabal, 63, Luis Artiga, 52, George Cole, 63, and Victor Bello, 54, are 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.

The trial doesn’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.

‘In Trouble’

“You know your city is in trouble when your city council members have to look to Robert Rizzo for moral leadership,” Miller said today.

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.

Prosecutors allege 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.

Legal Authorization

Shepard Kopp, Jacobo’s lawyer, said in his closing argument today 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.”

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 vast majority of the council members’ work was in the community and not in meetings, the lawyer said.

“The government’s case is built on a fundamental misunderstanding of how city council members work,” Kopp said. “They have blinders on in this case and they’ve had them on since the get-go.”

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.

The jury is scheduled to start deliberations tomorrow.

The case is People v. Hernandez, BA376025, California Superior Court, Los Angeles County (Los Angeles).

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