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Bell trial: Closing arguments under way

February 20, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
Closing arguments began Wednesday in the case of six former Bell officials charged with misappropriating public funds.

Former Mayor Oscar Hernandez and five former city council members Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal, Luis Artiga, George Cole and Victor Bello nearly drove the city to bankruptcy by the outrageous salaries they were commanding, prosecutor Ed Miller said.

In addition to their inflated council salaries of as much as $80,000 a year, the officials appointed each other to commissions that did nothing and often met yearly just to increase their pay, Miller said. In one instance, the defendants paid themselves more than $300,000 during a two-minute meeting in which they voted themselves salary raises for their sham positions, Miller said. The six former city officials are accused of making up sham commissions, including the creation of Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, to bolster their pay.

"They gave themselves raises which were not even drafted by a lawyer. Somebody just made this up out of the blue," Miller said.

The ousted council members testified in the trial, saying they earned $100,000 per year. The revelations caused a furor in the Los Angeles suburb where one in six of its 40,000 residents reportedly live in poverty.

During Cole's testimony, the prosecutor pointed out that the councilman had a chauffeur and car to get around the city, which spans just 2 1/2 miles.

The defendants say they acted in good faith and that they didn't know the law. Jacobo says that they trusted City Attorney Ed Lee to guide them on the payments. The defendants also justified their salary amount as fair pay for multiple projects, achievements and long hours of work. They blamed City Manager Robert Rizzo for the rip-off that cost the city millions of dollars and nearly bankrupted it.

Rizzo and his assistant city manager, Angela Spazzio, face a trial later in the year.

A reported $5 million was allegedly taken from city coffers between 2006 and 2010. After disclosure of the scandal, Bell residents revolted and turned out in the thousands to protest at City Council meetings. They ultimately staged a successful recall election at which they threw out the entire council and elected a slate of new leaders.

If convicted on all counts, the defendants could spend from 11 to 20 years behind bars.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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