By Hector Becerra, Christine Mai-Duc and Ashley Powers, Los Angeles Times
6:30 PM PDT, March 20, 2013
When Los Angeles prosecutors filed charges against Bell officials in 2010, it inspired celebrations and rallies in the small working-class city.
At the time, anger over the allegations of widespread corruption burned hot. Many also were embarrassed Bell had become, literally, the answer to a "Jeopardy" question on public graft.
On Wednesday, when five former City Council members were convicted of misappropriating public funds, the reaction throughout Bell was mixed.
For some, the verdict brought relief that all but one ex-politician on trial had been found guilty of something. Others were angry that the jury deadlocked on so many counts and found the defendants not guilty of some offenses.
But more than anything, residents wanted the world to know that Bell has changed since the days of those original embarrassing headlines. Reformers now hold office. And Bell was recently honored by a nonprofit government watchdog group for its openness with city records and salary data. They've come a long way, many in town insisted, from the days when former city administrator Robert Rizzo secretly earned more than $800,000 a year.
On Gage Avenue, one of Bell's main drags, Rosa Estela Martinez and her husband, Enrique, debated the verdict's meaning. The couple has run the Pacific Furniture store here for more than 35 years, and said they had been harassed by since-ousted city officials.
"Right now we're going to go dance in City Hall," said Rosa, 55, who proudly wears a City of Bell pin on her lapel. "When they first said guilty, I jumped with joy."
But her husband, 60, fumed.
"They should have been found guilty of all 10 charges, each and every one of them," he said, slashing the air with his right arm for emphasis. "They're disgraces."
Martinez called the ex-council members "puppets of Rizzo," but "well paid puppets" and expressed disgust that one of the former politicians, Luis Artiga, was cleared of all charges.
An industrial speck that withered with the closure of tire, auto and steel plants in the 1970s and 1980s, Bell hired a city administrator in 1993 who prosecutors said took advantage of its disengaged electorate.
Rizzo allegedly orchestrated exorbitant pay raises for himself and other city officials.
By 2010, Rizzo was making nearly $800,000, with a benefits package that brought his annual compensation to $1.5 million. His assistant, Angela Spaccia, was paid nearly $400,000 a year. They are scheduled to stand trial later this year.
The council members convicted Wednesday — Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal, George Cole and Victor Bello — made nearly $100,000 a year in part-time positions that in most small cities paid less than $1,000 a month. So did Artiga, the only member of the "Bell Six" who escaped conviction.
Despite a four-week trial and 18 days of deliberations, as of mid-Wednesday, the jury remained undecided on about half the counts.
Behind the counter of Bell Discount Cigarettes, owner Vasgo Derparsghian said he felt relieved that the jury had come to a decision, even if it was incomplete. But he also felt it took far too long for this day to come.
"I'm tired of the case. I just want them to go to jail," said Derparsghian, 48, who watched Wednesday's proceedings on TV. "I don't know why it took such a long time, man. Two and a half years, come on, man."
Derparsghian said he was once so afraid of going to Bell City Hall that his brother told him to move.
"They were very rude and intimidating, man. I was shaking in my boots," he said. "I was scared for my life, I swear to God."
He said the last few years had him dreaming of finally moving from Bell.
At the El Hussein Youth Center mosque, Youssef Ghasham, 64, finished his prayers and called the verdicts a long-overdue measure of justice.
"They broke the city. They broke us," Ghasham said. "They took our property taxes to the sky. Everything went up. They broke this nice city."
Since the scandal broke, politics in Bell has been transformed. Voters ousted most of the city council and welcomed new administrators, who've balanced the budget and cut back fees for trash pickup and building permits that swelled under Rizzo.
The man who holds Rizzo's old job makes $175,000 – and he is the city's highest-paid employee.
On Wednesday, Mayor Ali Saleh stood outside the one-story brick City Hall and hailed the successful prosecutions as bringing "closure and justice to our community." But, he reminded a small group of reporters, the trial of Rizzo and Spaccia remains.
They "plundered our city's resources and shackled Bell's hardworking families with an overwhelming tax burden," Saleh said. "I think that the legacy that was left by the previous administration is going to take a long-term healing process, but I think this is part of the closure."
Councilman Nestor Valencia was even more forceful. "These people left us in a hole. It's a hard hole to get out of, not just financially, not just materially, but the trust factor," he said.
Times staff writer Corina Knoll contributed to this report.
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