Former Bell Councilman George Cole, the ex-steelworker who became one of the most influential politicians in southeast Los Angeles County, was sentenced Wednesday to five years’ probation and 180 days of home confinement for his part in the corruption scandal that nearly drove the working-class city into bankruptcy.
Cole’s sentence, which includes 1,000 hours of community service and $77,643 in restitution, was far less than the four years in prison that prosecutors requested.
At the end of the hearing, an elated Cole and his attorney, Ronald Kaye, hugged their supporters, who had filled the courtroom.
“I’m very happy,” Kaye said. “George Cole has done more for people in the southeast region than anyone over the past 20 years.”
Cole declined to comment, saying gruffly, “I’m not talking to you guys.”
Meanwhile, Bell Mayor Nestor Valencia sat on a bench outside the courtroom fuming after the sentencing. “You saw how happy he was,” Valencia said. “There was no remorse. They’re sending out the message that crime pays.”
Cole, 64, was the second former Bell council member to be sentenced for misappropriation of public funds, the consequence of being paid for sitting on city boards that met seldom, if ever, pushing their salaries to nearly $100,000 a year for their part-time work.
L.A. County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy sentenced George Mirabal this month to a year in county jail, ordered him to pay restitution and perform community service. Mirabal, who was ordered to report to jail Friday, could serve as few as several days or weeks in jail.
Former council members Teresa Jacobo, Oscar Hernandez and Victor Bello are scheduled to be sentenced later this month. Prosecutors have said they would recommend four-year prison sentences for each of them.
Robert Rizzo, the city’s former chief administrator, and Angela Spaccia, his second-in-command — considered the architects of the corruption — are serving lengthy prison sentences.
Cole, dressed in a blue sport coat and khaki pants, told Kennedy he had become “a pariah in the community” who has been shunned by longtime friends. “There’s no way to express the shame, the remorse,” he said.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Sean Hassett said that Cole, who was sworn in as a councilman when members were making just $434 a month, should have known better. But instead, he voted for resolutions to raise salaries that were purposely deceiving. “It’s a betrayal, it’s a constant betrayal and it was done for personal greed,” Hassett said.
Cole served 24 years on the council, coming to office on an anti-corruption platform. He built a power base that went beyond Bell and had a reputation as someone who stood up for the poor. Rizzo once told The Times that Cole was “my strongest council member.”
Mirroring the changing demographics of the area, the council was all white when Cole was elected in 1984, and by the end of his tenure in 2008, he was the only non-Latino member, although he speaks Spanish and was seen as a man who’d embraced the immigrants who arrived in Bell.
“George Cole is a Latino leader even though he is not Latino,” L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina once said.
Cole later became chief executive of the Steelworkers Oldtimers Foundation, an organization that provides dial-a-ride and meal programs for seniors, earning an annual salary of nearly $100,000. Rizzo lent the foundation more than $100,000 of city funds without council approval, one of the charges the former city administrator pleaded to.
The city last month sued Oldtimers, alleging the group was paid $87,120 it was not entitled to.
Besides restitution, Cole has agreed to repay Bell more than $200,000 in retirement money he received. His pension from the state system has been reduced from the nearly $50,000 a year he was receiving before the scandal to $4,102.
Kaye told the judge that Cole was in poor health, and had suffered several heart attacks and strokes and had diabetes and kidney disease, conditions that would be exacerbated if he were incarcerated.
“Mr. Cole has done a lot of good things for a lot of people,” the judge said. “Unfortunately, his legacy really has been tarnished, and this is what he probably will be remembered for.”