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Former Bell council members weigh deal for guilty pleas

Nearly four years after a corruption scandal engulfed their small town, Bell's former political leaders are under mounting pressure to plead guilty to corruption charges and accept possible prison sentences.

The district attorney has offered the former council members maximum prison terms of four years if they plead guilty to misappropriation of public funds by drawing paychecks for serving on boards and commissions that rarely, if ever, met.

With time off for good behavior, the former leaders of the small, working-class town could serve as few as two years behind bars. Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy could also give them more lenient sentences including probation.

All five were convicted last year on related corruption charges but the jury was unable to reach a verdict on nearly half the counts. Based on those convictions, George Cole, George Mirabal, Teresa Jacobo, Oscar Hernandez and Victor Bello already face possible eight-year prison sentences, making the four-year offer more attractive.

It they refuse the offer, all five would again stand trial and face a judge who has indicated that her patience is wearing thin and wants to draw the Bell corruption case to a close.

The salary scandal in the southeast Los Angeles County city exploded in 2010 when the enormous paychecks of the town's top leaders were exposed. Part-time council members were making nearly $100,000 a year, and the city's administrator, Robert Rizzo, had a total compensation of $1.5 million annually, making him the highest paid municipal leader in California, and likely the nation.

Subsequent investigation revealed that Rizzo had lent city money, wrote his own contracts and provided false documents about the size of his salary. The city was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy when Rizzo, the city's second in command and the police chief were forced to resign.

Rizzo pleaded no contest to 69 felony corruption charges last year and is set to be sentenced in March. He also pleaded guilty to federal tax fraud charges. The judge has said she probably will sentence him to 10 to 12 years in prison.

The city's former second in command, Angela Spaccia, was convicted late last year on 11 corruption charges and is set to be sentenced Feb. 26. The prosecutor has recommended a sentence of more than 12 years. She is the only former Bell official already behind bars.

Now the former council members are under the gun to bring their cases to an end.

In the past, they have insisted they wouldn't take any deal that included time behind bars. In 2011, several defendants rejected plea deals that would have sent them to prison for two years.

Under terms of the current deal, all defendants must agree or the offer will be withdrawn, defendants' attorneys said.

The lawyers would not provide details of the deal but said their clients would gather to discuss it.

Attorneys for Bello, Jacobo and Hernandez met last week with Deputy Dist. Atty. Sean Hassett in Kennedy's chambers, where the prosecutor made the offer. Hassett previously laid out the deal to lawyers for Cole and Mirabal.

The defendants would still be required to pay restitution to Bell, but the amount has not been determined.

The defendants are due in court Friday, when they could plead guilty or the judge could set a date for retrial.

The first trial ended chaotically with a deeply divided jury and Kennedy saying "all hell had broken loose."

Jurors deliberated 17 days before returning the mixed verdict, which included the acquittal of a sixth former council member, Luis Artiga. One juror then asked the judge to reconsider the guilty verdicts. During deliberations another juror complained about the heated deliberations and asked the judge to "remind the jury to remain respectful and not to make false accusations and insults to one another."

But later, in an interview with The Times, one juror said dissension on the jury worsened as the deliberations went along

"The verdicts came out and then it got weird," said Stanley L. Friedman, who represents Oscar Hernandez, the town's former mayor.

jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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