Bell corruption trial: Mixed verdicts, 1 ex-councilman acquitted
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A jury returned a mixed bag of verdicts Wednesday in the trial of six ex-Bell City Council members accused of misappropriating public funds -- finding five of the defendants guilty on some charges but clearing them of others, and acquitting another entirely.
Ex-Mayor Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal were each found guilty of five counts of misappropriation of funds relating to the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority between Jan. 1, 2006, and July 26, 2010.
George Cole and Victor Bello also were found guilty of misappropriation of funds from the same department: Cole of two counts between Jan. 1, 2006, and Dec. 31, 2007; and Bello of four counts between Jan. 1, 2006, and Dec. 31, 2009.
But each of those five ex-council members were found not guilty for the same counts related to the Public Finance Authority during the same time periods.
Luis Artiga, whose verdict was read last, wiped away tears as he was acquitted of each of the charges he faced.
‘I want to thank God,’ the pastor said afterward. ‘I want to thank my family. I said from the beginning the truth will set me free.’
But despite a four-week trial and 18 days of deliberations, the jury remained undecided on about half of the counts, allegations related to the Community Housing and Surplus Property authorities. The jury told the judge it was 9-3 on the remaining counts, but did not indicate whether they were leaning toward guilty or not guilty. Several jurors said they did not believe there was anything else that could be done to help them reach a verdict. But four jurors said they could use additional information about state laws.
‘As much as I hate to do this, I think the court needs to inquire further,’ Judge Kathleen Kennedy said. ‘I know you thought this was going to be the end and I was going to be releasing you.’
Kennedy ordered the jury to take a lunch break. They will return at 2 p.m.
The nearly $100,000 salaries drawn by most of the former elected officials are part of a much larger municipal corruption case in the southeast Los Angeles County city, where prosecutors allege money from its modest general fund flowed freely to top officials.
The three defendants who testified painted a picture of a city as a place led by a controlling, manipulative administrator, who handed out enormous salaries, lent city money and padded future pensions.
Robert Rizzo, the former administrator, and former assistant city manager Angela Spaccia are awaiting trial.
In a statement released after the verdicts were read, the Bell Assn. to Stop the Abuse, or BASTA, said it was “a clear step in helping the Bell community to heal.”
“This verdict is long awaited and further vindicates the community’s efforts to move out of the shadow of Rizzo’s corrupt regime,” the group said in a statement.
“The community has learned its lessons — it has become more informed, involved, and held its elected officials more accountable,” said BASTA representative Fidencio Gallardo. “It is reassuring to know that our judicial system is not broken, and that justice can be served.”
Sally Hoyt, a resident of nearby Bell Gardens, was not pleased with the verdict.
‘Justice was not served,’ she said. ‘If they didn’t find them all guilty of all counts, justice wasn’t done. I don’t know what the jurors were thinking.’
— Corina Knoll and Kate Mather in Los Angeles, and Christine Mai-Duc in Bell