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Time may not be on prosecutors’ side in Bell trial

Prosecutors called the outsized salaries Bell officials received “corruption on steroids.”

But for jurors weighing the fates of six former Bell council members, the case has turned out to be far less clear-cut.

Over the last 2 1/2 weeks, they have struggled to reach a verdict in a case that many observers considered a slam-dunk. It comes down to a basic question: Could those salaries -- which approached $100,000 -- be excessive and still be legal?

Based on their questions and testimony read backs, the jury appears to be debating the legality of those paychecks. At one point, the jury asked for a copy of the state Constitution as well as clarifications of California law on compensation for elected officials.

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Two weeks ago, the jury said it was deadlocked and had “fundamental disagreements.” The judge removed one juror from the case for alleged misconduct and asked that the panel restart deliberations.

The salaries earned by officials in the small, blue-collar town made national headlines in 2010 and resulted in one of the largest corruption cases in L.A. County history. City Administrator Robert Rizzo’s annual pay was nearly $800,000, the town’s police chief made more than the police commissioner in New York City, and Angela Spaccia, Rizzo’s former assistant, earned nearly $400,000.

Prosecutors charged the officials with misappropriating public funds by exceeding pay limits established in state law and the city’s own charter.

The prosecution has argued that the six defendants -- Luis Artiga, Victor Bello, George Cole, Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal -- 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.

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The district attorney’s office said council members broke the law by exceeding the $50-per-meeting, four-meetings-per-month cap from boards they served on. Council members are also accused of fraudulently compensating themselves for sitting on boards that rarely met.

The defendants are blaming the whole scandal on Rizzo, whom they described as the mastermind behind the outsized salaries. They allege that Rizzo set their pay and that the city attorney failed to warn them that the amounts could be illegal.

The defense has argued their clients relied on the city attorney and were victims of Rizzo’s scams and intimidation. And at least some legal experts believe that might have swayed the jury.

“The jurors may be searching for a smoking gun here and not finding one in their minds,” said Dmitry Gorin, a Los Angeles criminal defense attorney. “Maybe the jurors feel some sympathy for these council members. They heard some of them testify and they sounded unsophisticated. Did they know these meetings were a sham and a con to get pay?”

Robert Sheahen, a veteran defense lawyer, said the length of time the jury has taken is “extraordinary” and does not bode well for the prosecution.

“It is a very long time in one room,” he said. “It is probably like ’12 Angry Men’ by now.”

The jury was handed the case Feb. 22, and it became evident quickly that the panel was wrestling with certain issues. Jurors asked to be read the testimony of a district attorney’s investigator who had requested documents establishing council pay. They also asked for copies of five documents regarding salaries for serving on boards and authorities.

Last Friday, they had questions about the jury instructions. Moments later, they sent another note to L.A. County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy. They wanted to know whether members of the Bell Community Housing Authority could be compensated for other duties besides attending meetings. This could be significant because the defense had argued the council members performed duties for that commission that went well beyond attending meetings.

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Kennedy said Friday that she felt a verdict was close, but that proved to be false optimism.

By Monday, jurors had a new set of questions, asking to be read testimony regarding what the City Charter and state Constitution say about council pay.

Deliberations were put on hold Tuesday when a juror called in sick, leaving those following the case frustrated by another delay.

Residents in Bell, many of whom became community activists in the wake of the corruption scandal, are becoming increasingly anxious.

“They have all the evidence in the world, and it’s clear as daylight, like a sunny day, that they are guilty,” said Jose Moreno, a 62-year-old retired warehouse foreman. “The fact that the jury hasn’t reached a verdict is just outrageous.”

“The prosecutor put it all right there on the table,” added resident Alex Paredes, 66, who once worked alongside Cole at a local steel mill and attended part of the trial. “I thought it was going to be easy for those jurors,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going on.”

Experts, however, said juries are tough to read -- even in high-profile cases. Deliberations in the political corruption case against former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich lasted nine days. The McMartin preschool molestation trial, which lasted for 2 1/2 years, took nine weeks to render not-guilty verdicts. Yet jurors in the months-long O.J. Simpson trial had a verdict after just four hours.

Some jury experts said lengthy deliberations tend to bode well for defendants. They said the Bell case is particularly complex, with piles of documents, weeks of testimony and six defendants.

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Another wild card is Rizzo, who is most associated with the scandal. The defense has argued that he manipulated the council into taking the salaries. He and Spaccia face a separate trial later this year.

“I would assume that what is happening is they’re going through each separate defendant with his or her particular count,” said jury consultant Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, who worked on the Simpson and McMartin cases. “When they go through it in that very analytical way, it does take a long time, and there may be points of contention between the jurors.”

The general rule of thumb when it comes to deliberations tends to be one day for every week of testimony, said veteran defense attorney Paul Wallin. Anything longer, he said, is a strong sign of a hung jury or at least a deadlock on some counts.

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corina.knoll@latimes.com

Times staff writers Jeff Gottlieb, Ruben Vives and Richard Winton contributed to this report.


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