Bell Corruption Mistrial Declared on Counts That Remained

A jury that found five former members of Bell, California’s council guilty of misappropriating public funds failed to reach a verdict on the remaining counts, resulting in a mistrial.

Following guilty verdicts on some charges on March 20, the jurors were summoned back yesterday for more deliberation after four of them said they thought that further instruction on the law might help them reach a unanimous agreement. Later in the day, California Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy in Los Angeles declared a mistrial on the allegations that were still pending.

“It went from really bad to really well for the defense,” Stanley Friedman, a lawyer for former Bell councilman Oscar Hernandez, said outside the courthouse.

Hernandez and four other former city officials were found guilty of paying themselves excessive salaries for sitting on Bell’s solid waste and recycling authority, a board that prosecutors alleged hardly ever met. The five were found not guilty of charges related to the salaries they received for sitting on the city’s public financing board. Jurors didn’t return verdicts for the payments the five received for sitting on the surplus property authority and the community housing authority.

‘Phantom’ Meetings

Hernandez, 65, Teresa Jacobo, 55, George Mirabal, 63, George Cole, 63, Victor Bello, 54, and a sixth defendant, Luis Artiga, 52, were accused of misappropriating about $1.2 million in public funds by getting paid almost $8,000 a month for attending “phantom” board meetings. Artiga was found not guilty yesterday on all charges against him.

Jean Guccione, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, declined to comment on the mistrial.

Friedman said his client faces a sentence ranging from probation to eight years in state prison. Such a long prison term is very unlikely, the lawyer said.

Jurors were deadlocked on so-called special allegations concerning the amount of money misappropriated that would have made it a more difficult for the former officials to get probation, Friedman said.

Median Income

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 trial didn’t include former city manager Robert Rizzo, who is 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 Angela Spaccia, the former assistant city manager, 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 under scrutiny. The median salary for California’s city managers in 2009 was $187,728, according to the state controller’s office.

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

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