LOS ANGELES — Five former elected officials of the tiny California city of Bell were convicted Wednesday of multiple counts of misappropriation of public funds, and a sixth defendant was cleared entirely. Former Mayor Oscar Hernandez (pictured below) and co-defendants Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal, George Cole and Victor Belo were all convicted of multiple counts and acquitted of others.
The charges against them involved paying themselves inflated salaries of up to $100,000 a year in the city where 1 in 4 residents live below the poverty line, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
Prosecutors brought an extensive case involving about 100 counts. An audit by the state controller’s office found the city had illegally raised property taxes, business license fees and other sources of revenue to pay the salaries. The office ordered the money repaid.
The current jury deliberated since Feb. 28, when one member of an original panel was replaced and the judge told the reconstituted group to start talks anew.
The officials on trial were Hernandez, former Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo, and former council members George Mirabal, George Cole, Victor Bello and Luis Artiga. All except Artiga served as mayor at some point.
The trial was the first court proceeding following disclosures of massive corruption in the gritty town. As the population in the Los Angeles suburb has decreased in recent years, the poverty level has increased markedly.
A lawyer for Hernandez said during the trial that his client was unschooled, illiterate and not the type of “scholar” who understood the city’s finances.
“We elect people who have a good heart. Someone who can listen to your problems and look you in the eye,” attorney Stanley Friedman said.
The scandal that rocked Bell raised the curtain on a fiefdom established by powerful former city manager Robert Rizzo. City records revealed that Rizzo had an annual salary and compensation package worth $1.5 million, making him one of the highest paid administrators in the country.
His salary alone was about $800,000 a year, double that of the president of the United States.
To fund his and other officials’ salaries, prosecutors say, Rizzo masterminded a scheme to loot the treasury of $5.5 million. He and his assistant city manager, Angela Spaccia, face their own trial later in the year.
Witnesses at the former council members’ trial depicted Rizzo as a micro manager who convinced the city’s elected officials that they too deserved huge salaries.
He was said to have manipulated council members into signing major financial documents, particularly Hernandez who could not read what he was signing.
After the scandal was disclosed, thousands of Bell residents protested at City Council meetings and staged a successful recall election to throw out the entire council and elect new leaders.
Jurors heard more than three weeks of testimony and saw numerous documents. But when it came time to deliberate, things did not go well.
A juror who claimed she was being harassed by others on the panel acknowledged she had done research on the Internet about her jury service and discussed it with her daughter. The judge found she had committed misconduct and, after five days of deliberations, the weeping juror was dismissed from the panel.