By Corina Knoll, Ruben Vives and Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times
6:26 PM PDT, March 20, 2013
A Los Angeles jury convicted five of six former council members of stealing from the working-class city of Bell in a corruption scandal that became a national synonym for outrageous municipal salaries and rogue governance.
The verdict Wednesday came on the 18th day of deliberations — nearly as long as the trial itself — and left the jury still deadlocked on nearly half the counts. The judge ordered the jury to return to court Thursday, though it remains unclear if the panel will continue to deliberate on the undecided charges.
The day ended on a chaotic note, further evidence that the jury was deeply divided.
Hours after the verdicts were read, one juror told Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy that he had misgivings about the deliberations. But Kennedy rejected a call by the defense to talk to the juror.
"That's done. We're not going to reopen verdicts that have been reached," she said.
The verdicts were decidedly mixed, with the jury returning guilty verdicts and acquittals in even measure. One councilman, a pastor in the small city, was acquitted on all charges. He offered a prayer as the verdicts rolled in.
Former Bell City Administrator Robert Rizzo, who many believe was the mastermind of the corruption, and his assistant, Angela Spaccia, will be tried later this year.
Prosecutors charged the officials with misappropriating public funds by exceeding pay limits established in state law and the city's own charter. The prosecution had argued that the six defendants overpaid themselves by sitting on city boards and authorities that did little work and that council members in a city the size of Bell can only legally earn an annual salary of $8,076.
Defendants were acquitted on charges related to their pay from the Public Finance Authority but were convicted for money they received for sitting on the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority. That board was established in 2005 when the city already had an outside contractor for trash services. Prosecutors said the board rarely met and called it a "sham" to pad leaders' salaries.
The only defendant to win full acquittal was Luis Artiga, who faced 12 counts related to serving on phantom city boards between 2008 and 2010.
His attorney had stressed that Artiga was not appointed to the City Council until 2008, long after other members had voted to boost salaries.
Artiga, 52, wept and looked heavenward as the "not guilty" counts were read.
The judge said "Good health to you" and released Artiga, who had a reputation as the most affable and talkative of the defendants. Afterward, he thanked Jesus for delivering him from "these false allegations." He added: "I had said from the beginning that the truth will set me free and we know that Jesus said, 'I am the Truth and the Life.'"
Convicted on multiple felony counts were former council members Oscar Hernandez, 65, who ran a small grocery store; Victor Bello, 54, a former phone jack installer; George Cole, 63, a former steelworker; Teresa Jacobo, 60, who sold real estate; and George Mirabal, 65, who ran a funeral home.
It remained unclear what type of punishment the five will receive. Attorneys estimated the convicted defendants could face anything from probation to jail time of up to eight years.
A key issue is whether the jury reached verdicts on special so-called "taking" allegations brought by prosecutors. If convicted on those counts, the officials would be more likely to face prison terms.
Defendants were emotional, some teary-eyed, as they left the courtroom with their families, unsure of their final fates.
Prosecutors alleged the defendants drew pay for serving on four boards, boosting their salaries to nearly $100,000 a year, among the highest in the state for part-time council members. The defendants were accused of drawing more than $1.3 million of their salaries from the boards.
Defense attorneys maintained that their clients labored tirelessly for the community on nights and weekends and could receive additional compensation for work outside meetings.
The former council members have said that they considered their jobs to be full-time, and believed they were being paid for their role on the council rather than on the boards.
During her testimony in February, Jacobo said she understood the resolution that first introduced the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority to be merely a legal process meant to evaluate how to form such an authority. At the time, the city was ostensibly planning to get rid of its contracted trash services and do the job itself, with its own solid waste plant.
"We needed to look ahead," she testified.
In his closing argument to jurors, Deputy Dist. Atty. Edward Miller said: "The solid waste plant never got sketched — not on a blackboard, not on any kind of proposal, not even on a cocktail napkin."
Since the scandal broke, most of the attention has been focused on Rizzo, whose compensation was scheduled to hit $1.5 million a year, which would have made him the highest paid public pensioner in California when he retired.
Municipal experts said the paychecks received by the leaders of Bell, with a population of roughly 35,000, were unheard of. When The Times revealed that the council members' salaries were approaching six figures, Hernandez, the mayor at the time, defended the pay. "In a troubled city, the City Council should get paid a little more," he said.
The high salaries formed a chapter in a larger story of municipal corruption that left the city creeping toward insolvency, authorities maintain.
Backed up to the Los Angeles River in the urban gray of southeast Los Angeles County, Bell is a town where the normal checks and balances unraveled: The city manager lent $1.9 million of city dollars to workers and businesses, taxes were illegally increased, and pensions were padded.
Besides Rizzo, four other employees received compensation of more than $400,000 a year, placing them among the 25 highest paid public officials in the state, according to Bell's current city attorney. A running theme in the four-week trial was of a city government in disarray. The first witness was Bell's city clerk, who testified that she signed minutes of meetings she never attended and that she was ordered to provide false salaries to a resident who had made a public records request. Working for Bell meant asking few questions, she said.
Other witnesses described a City Hall under Rizzo's full control.
Although blame was repeatedly placed on Rizzo, who was Bell's city administrator for 17 years, and then-City Atty. Edward Lee, the defense gave a variety of explanations for the salaries.
Jacobo said Rizzo told her she could quit her job as a real estate agent and work full time for the city. She said she trusted that the city attorney would have flagged anything illegal.
Cole said that he voted for a 12% annual pay raise only because he feared that if he opposed the Rizzo-written resolution, the city manager would, out of vengeance, gut the programs he worked hard to implement.
Hernandez's attorney said his client, known more for his heart than his intellect, had only a grade-school education and lacked the sophistication to know that the salaries could be illegal.
The case was brought by then-Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who called the situation in Bell "corruption on steroids."
In an interview Wednesday, Cooley said he was pleased with the verdict and was anticipating the trial for Rizzo and Spaccia.
"There are still some chapters that need to be written in terms of the justice system's response to the Bell scandal," he said. "We will wait for that to be resolved in a couple of months, but I think this is a step in the right direction. I hope that public entities both here in Los Angeles County and elsewhere get a message that they cannot all loot the public treasury with abandon."firstname.lastname@example.org
Times staff writers Christopher Goffard, Jeff Gottlieb, Hector Becerra, Joseph Serna, Jack Leonard, Andrew Blankstein, Samantha Schaefer and Kate Mather contributed to this report.
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