Lawyers for six current and former Bell leaders said their clients would not accept plea deals that would have sent them to prison for two years and forced them to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars allegedly looted from the city treasury.
The news emerged Monday as the six defendants — council members Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal, and former council members Luis Artiga, George Cole and Victor Bello — faced the start of a preliminary hearing in Los Angeles County Superior Court in the Bell corruption case.
The Los Angeles County district attorney's office confirmed that it had extended plea deals, but said the offer is now off the table. Legal experts said prosecutors' willingness to deal with the council members may signal their intention to zero in on the two defendants who did not receive such offers — former City Administrator Robert Rizzo and his assistant, Angela Spaccia — as the architects of the city's wide-ranging scandal.
At Monday's hearing, prosecutors said the part-time council members had presided over phantom commissions that seldom or never met, and which boosted their salaries to nearly $100,000. In most small cities, part-time council positions pay a few hundred dollars a month.
"They paid themselves for doing almost no work," Deputy Dist. Atty. Edward Miller told Judge Henry J. Hall. The council members, Miller said, had "robbed the citizens of Bell of over $1.3 million" through the commissions, including one called the Solid Waste Authority, which he described as "a solid waste of money."
The prosecutor's first witness, Lorenzo Velez, the only council member not charged, said he was paid about $620 a month and wasn't aware that other council members were getting $100,000 a year until he read about it in The Times.
"I didn't know the boards existed," he said of the commissions from which council members drew most of their pay.
At three back-to-back preliminary hearings that are expected to play out over the next several weeks, prosecutors will attempt to convince Hall that there is probable cause to send all eight defendants to trial. Together, they are accused of looting more than $5.5 million in public money from one of the county's poorest cities. The scandal has transformed a tiny Los Angeles County suburb into a question on "Jeopardy!" and a national byword for brazen municipal venality.
But although all eight are in the dock, prosecutors could find it tougher to prove charges against the council members than against Rizzo, said Dmitry Gorin, a veteran defense lawyer who has been watching the case. "The council members are not involved in the day-to-day running of City Hall, and rely on the staff for advice.
"What they have done may be reprehensible, but their lawyers will argue it was not illegal," he added. "Rizzo, by contrast, had his fingers in every cake."
Prosecutors clearly want to make an example of Rizzo, Gorin said, predicting that he and Spaccia "aren't likely to get any friendly treatment."
Prosecutors launched the case after The Times disclosed the high salaries paid to administrators and elected leaders in Bell, led by Rizzo, whose compensation totaled about $1.5 million.
L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley has said Rizzo treated the city's treasury as his personal cash box, describing him as Bell's "unelected and unaccountable czar."
For the next several days, the hearing is expected to focus on council members and the commissions from which they drew pay. The current and former council members face a combined 20 felony counts of misappropriation of public funds. On Monday, the prosecution dropped several counts against former councilman Cole because he did not draw a salary in 2007-2008.
Once this hearing concludes, the court is scheduled to turn to allegations that Rizzo and Spaccia looted public funds by writing their own lucrative employment contracts that were not approved by the council.
Rizzo is also charged with falsifying public records to keep his salary secret and with giving out nearly $1.9 million in unauthorized city loans to himself and about 50 Bell employees.
The former city administrator is the sole defendant in a final hearing, in which he is accused of conflict of interest for his dealings with Dennis Tarango, who served as Bell's privately contracted planning director, and with whom Rizzo owned racehorses. The city has paid Tarango's firms $10.4 million since 1995, according to the state controller's office.
As a result of the scandal, which a prosecutor dubbed "corruption on steroids," the controller's office determined that Bell had overcharged residents $5.6 million in illegal property taxes, sewer fees and business licenses. State legislators approved a bill refunding $2.9 million of that money. The controller also began requiring cities and counties to post salaries on its website.
The two-year deal offered to the defendants may not have amounted to much of a concession by prosecutors. Sanford Perliss, a lawyer who represented a Temple City mayor charged in a recent bribery case, said his client rejected a two-year plea deal but ultimately pleaded no contest and received a 16-month sentence from a judge.
In public corruption cases, Perliss said, attorneys have to consider the influence of public furor. It was a factor in the Temple City plea because "the atmosphere was very poisoned" against his client, he said. "Everybody seems to hate everybody in government, and that is a reality that must be considered."
Nonetheless, Cristina Garcia, a spokeswoman for BASTA, an activist group in Bell, said people would be "outraged" if a deal of that nature were approved.
"So many people in this community have been abused by these people, and two years isn't enough," Garcia said. "The people of Bell are going to be paying for generations for what they have done."
Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.