The four-year corruption case that pushed the tiny town of Bell into the national spotlight and spurred the state to scrutinize the size of all public salaries drew to a close Friday in a largely empty Los Angeles courtroom where a final defendant met his punishment.
In front of a few reporters and a handful of spectators, Victor Bello — a onetime phone jack installer who was paid nearly $100,000 for his part-time duties as a councilman — was sentenced to a year in jail and five years' probation. It was a quiet end to what had been dubbed the most massive case of public corruption in Los Angeles County.
"I'm sure I'm not the only one in this room that's kind of happy we're finally resolving the last of these cases," said Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy, who presided over all the Bell corruption cases, handing down sentences short and long.
"It's been a very long road for all of us," the judge said. "It's kind of like this whole city of Bell was a very poorly written soap opera of personalities."
Bello, the judge said, had acted as a thorn in city administrator Robert Rizzo's side and his willingness to plead guilty years ago distinguished him from his co-defendants.
"It just seems so obvious to all of us now, but I don't know that Mr. Bello really realized at the time exactly the extent of his malfeasance," Kennedy said.
The 56-year-old is scheduled to surrender Aug. 29 and was ordered to serve 500 hours of community service and pay more than $177,000 in restitution to Bell.
Bello's sentence was similar to that of his former council colleagues Oscar Hernandez and George Mirabal, who each received one-year jail terms. Teresa Jacobo received two years in state prison while George Cole was given home confinement. Rizzo and assistant city administrator Angela Spaccia, whom Kennedy called "the real architects of the fraud," were hit with 12-year prison terms.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Sean Hassett said he respected Kennedy's decisions, but believed that all five former council members should have received four years in prison. "Not that the people of Bell will ever truly get justice for what happened," he added.
Bello's attorney said he was pleased with the sentence because his client had 340 days of credit and thus would likely serve only about two additional days behind bars. Leo Moriarty said he had taken the case pro bono and was sympathetic to Bello, who lost his father to suicide and struggled with a language disorder. "I was really struck with his character," Moriarty said.
In many ways, Bello was the most pitiful of the accused officials.
Born in Cuba, he arrived in the states in 1987 with a high-school education. A decade passed and he joined the Bell City Council.
But Bello eventually butted heads with his colleagues and in 2006 he complained about them to the district attorney. In 2009, he penned a letter to the office, alleging misconduct by Rizzo. "I am pleading for help, for my city, our community," it read.
When interviewed by investigators about the complaint more than 10 months later, Bello mentioned his salary, which raised a red flag. A Times' June 2010 story about Bell's bloated salaries added to investigators' criminal investigation.
Banished from City Hall by Rizzo, Bello appeared only for council meetings. He resigned in 2009 and took a job at the city food bank, but was still paid his nearly six-figure council salary.
Arrested in September 2010, Bello could not afford to post bond as his co-defendants did. He remained in his jail cell under suicide watch. When his bail was finally reduced, he had served more than five months.
The only defendant willing to plead guilty after the 2011 preliminary hearings, Bello was ready to serve two years in state prison until the deal was rejected by the district attorney's office.
Divorced for years and with two daughters, Bello now lives with his mother in an apartment in Bell. He is currently unemployed and is on disability for mental health issues. He once revealed to reporters a box of his medications for high blood pressure, anxiety and depression.
Over the years, Bello kept to himself at court proceedings and was often unaccompanied. On Friday, dressed in a navy suit, he nervously made a short statement to the court.
"I'm here to apologize for what happened, I should have known better," he said. "I really, really apologize and it's something I should have looked into more. That's what I was trying to do and it got to this point. I was trying to figure out how things work, and again I am sorry."