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Accused Bell officials appear in court

February 7, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
Eight current and former Bell city officials appeared in court on Monday afternoon for a hearing to determine if they'll have to stand trial on charges they misappropriated public funds. They're accused of bilking Bell taxpayers out of close to $5.5 million.

All eight defendants appeared briefly before Superior Court Judge Upinder S. Karla on Monday and agreed to have the cases brought against them combined for one preliminary hearing, which is expected to last at least a week.

Mayor Oscar Hernandez, Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo, City Councilman George Mirabal, former city councilmen Luis Artiga, George Cole and Victor Bello are accused of gaming the system to receive salaries for bogus meetings that lasted a few minutes or not at all.

Former city manager Robert Rizzo is accused of giving nearly $1.9 million in unauthorized loans to himself, former assistant city manager Angela Spaccia and others.

Prosecutors allege that the eight accused officials used tax dollars as their own piggy bank, with high salaries, benefits and loans.

All have pleaded not guilty and all but Bello are free on bail.

Earlier in the day, outside court, Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Lentz Snyder confirmed prosecutors have discussed a possible plea bargain with attorneys for several of the officials.

"We have been contacted about a possible disposition in this case," she said. "We have provided a response."

But attorneys for at least two of the defendants, Artiga and Bello, said their clients have rejected a deal that would have called for them to plead guilty to four charges, serve two years in prison and make restitution.

"The plea bargain offer made, which for lack of a better word on my client's behalf, it's a waste of time," said Artiga's attorney, George G. Mgdesyan.

Some Bell residents were at the courthouse to witness the criminal proceedings.

"I want to see them get what they deserve. I want them to be shaking in their boots for what they've done to our city," said Bell resident Donna Gannon."They've done too much damage, and they need to pay for the damage."

Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley said it's a case of "corruption on steroids." All eight officials have pleaded not guilty. Seven of the officials posted bail. Only Bello remains in custody.

The only city councilmember not facing charges is Lorenzo Velez. He is the only one trying to show up for council meetings, but without five people present, the city can't hold a meeting.

Velez said he urges the other city council members to appear at the meeting, but they are apparently not returning his phone calls.

The preliminary hearing continues on Tuesday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.