One of the former council members blamed for the corruption that left one of Los Angeles County’s poorest cities headed toward bankruptcy was sentenced Friday to a year in the county jail, but he could be a free man in just weeks.
George Mirabal is the first of the five former Bell council members to be sentenced for their role in a scandal that overtook the small city and made it a national symbol for municipal greed.
“I feel so badly for the people of Bell that they were deprived of seeing Mr. Mirabal going to prison,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Sean Hassett, who recommended that Mirabal spend four years behind bars.
Bell’s new leaders criticized the short sentence. Mayor Nestor Valencia, who gave the court an emotional speech about the damage Mirabal had done, said he was “disgusted. It’s shameful.”
Mirabal was convicted on seven counts of misappropriation of public funds. He and other former council members were convicted of secretly increasing their salaries to as much as $100,000 a year by serving on city boards that met seldom, if ever.
In addition to the jail time, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy sentenced Mirabal to four years in state prison, which she suspended, ordered him to pay $242,294.48 restitution and perform 1,000 hours of community service.
Because of overcrowding in the county jail, nonviolent criminals serve only a portion of their sentences. Alex Kessel, Mirabal’s attorney, said his client probably would serve a week, or even less.
Hassett said that was possible but the Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jails, would determine the length of his jail term. Department officials said they expected to release that figure Monday.
Mirabal served 40 days after he and other city officials were arrested in September 2010, the day then-Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley called the Bell scandal “corruption on steroids.”
Kennedy’s sentence is sure to buoy the spirits of the other council members who are also facing a maximum four-year prison term. “I think she was very fair and very just,” said Leo Moriarty, the attorney for former council members Victor Bello and Teresa Jacobo.
Kennedy blamed most of the corruption on Robert Rizzo, the former chief administrative officer, and his top assistant, Angela Spaccia, both whom are serving lengthy prison terms. “I don’t believe the council and Mr. Mirabal was complicit in what Rizzo and Spaccia were doing, but they failed in their responsibility to govern and to exercise control over them,” the judge said.
Kennedy said she didn’t think the council knew about “all the plundering and thievery,” partly because Bell city officials were earning so much “that they didn’t want to see anything that would upset the apple cart, so to speak.”
In one of the poorest city’s in Los Angeles County, Rizzo was making $1.5 million annually, Spaccia more than $500,000 and other city officials more than $400,000, far more than their counterparts elsewhere.
Dressed in a double-breasted, dark blue suit, Mirabal made a five-minute statement to the judge, his voice cracking. At one point, he stopped to gather himself. “I apologize to the city of Bell today and to its residents,” he said.
In a 12-page letter to the judge, the former funeral director said he had filed for bankruptcy, can’t pay his lawyer and can’t find a job.
Hassett excoriated Mirabal in his sentencing memo.
“Defendant Mirabal committed these crimes because he is corrupt, avaricious, and lacks a moral compass,” Hassett wrote. “These crimes were premeditated and carefully orchestrated.”
The prosecutor also said that because of Bell’s retirement system, which gave about 40 employees perhaps the highest pensions of any non-public-safety officials in the state, some council members would have received pensions of $100,000 a year.
“Mirabal and his co-defendants’ sole aim was to make sure that the People of Bell would have to pay to support them for the rest of their lives,” Hassett wrote.