California city officals corruption case goes to jury

Saturday February 23, 2013

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The corruption case against six former officials of the scandal-ridden suburban city of Bell was placed in the hands of the jury Friday.

Jurors received the case for deliberations after a Los Angeles County prosecutor concluded his final argument.

Deputy District Attorney Ed Miller urged the panel to not be persuaded by defense arguments that the former officials are good people. He said they may have been people of fine character at one time but they forgot who they were when they illegally took huge salaries.

The six former officials face sentences ranging from 11 to 20 years in prison, if convicted.

On Thursday, the lawyer for former Mayor Oscar Hernandez said his unschooled and illiterate client had no training that would have alerted him that his salary was illegal.

Hernandez didn't have a college or high school degree and didn't even finish elementary school, defense attorney Stanley Friedman said.

Hernandez was earning just under $100,000 a year for the part-time job.

Friedman argued Thursday that financial advisers hired by the city could have informed Hernandez that salaries being paid to council members were illegal, but no one did that.

"They didn't say, ‘Stop in the name of the law. These salaries are illegal,"' he said.

Hernandez, former vice mayor Teresa Jacobo and former council members George Cole, George Mirabal, Victor Bello and Luis Artiga are charged with misappropriating funds from the blue collar city near Los Angeles.

In prosecutors' closing arguments on Wednesday, they said the six officials felt they were above the law and collected paychecks for jobs that didn't exist.

Legally, they could have paid themselves $673 a month for what was a part-time job, since they didn't actually run the city, Miller said. But in addition to their inflated council salaries, the officials appointed each other to commissions that did nothing and often met yearly just to increase their pay, he said. Some made $100,000 a year.

Attorneys for Jacobo and Cole made their closing arguments Wednesday afternoon, saying their clients were victims of a city attorney who never told them that what they were doing could be illegal.

Friedman echoed that argument on Thursday. He added that Hernandez was known around town for being willing to listen to everyone's problems. Like many other politicians of simple backgrounds, he wasn't required to be scholarly to be mayor, he said.

"We elect people who have a good heart. Someone who can listen to your problems and look you in the eye," Friedman said. "There are a lot of elected officials who may not be the most scholarly. We had a vice president of the United States who didn't know how to spell potato."

Friedman said former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's main qualification was "he portrayed a killer robot in the movies. And (former Minnesota Gov.) Jesse Ventura was a professional wrestler."

George Mgdesyan, representing Artiga, said his client had been on the council less than two years and "didn't know what boards he was getting paid for." Artiga learned the ropes by attending City Council meetings, he said.

"He sees at every meeting how it works. ... He thought this was a full-time job," the attorney said.

In the midst of a national economic meltdown, the council members were drawing salaries 3 1/2 times that of the median income of a Bell resident, Miller said. But defense attorneys said they saw no problem with the compensation.

Attorney Alex Kessel, speaking on behalf of Mirabal, said that on the night his client was arrested he had been out all day and evening doing good works for the city.

"They deserve the money they got," Kessel said. "This isn't stealing from the city. This is hard-earned money earned by hard working people."

After disclosure of the scandal in 2010, Bell residents revolted and turned out in the thousands to protest at City Council meetings. They ultimately staged a successful recall election in 2011, throwing out the entire council and electing a slate of new leaders.

An audit by the state controller's office found that 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.

Miller spoke to the jury again during his rebuttal on Thursday. He referred to the defendants as "a gang of crooks."

"Did you have to be a lawyer to be horrified?" he asked jurors. "This is supposed to raise a red flag in front of you as a reasonable person."

Former city manager Robert Rizzo and his assistant city manager, Angela Spaccia, are to stand trial later this year.


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