Bell former city leaders' corruption trial under way

BELL, Calif.

The trial got off to a rough start as defense attorneys argued with the judge over some projection slides prosecutors wanted to use in their opening statements. The slides showed various figures regarding the case, including some of the salaries the defendants were receiving. The judge decided to allow the slides to be shown.

Former Mayor Oscar Hernandez and former city council members Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal, Luis Artiga, George Cole and Victor Bello each face multiple counts - some as many as 20 - of misappropriating city funds through their work on various city agencies, including the Community Housing Authority, Public Financing Authority and Solid Waste and Recycling Authority.

According to prosecutors, the six defendants padded their paychecks by putting themselves in those agencies as well as a number of boards. They allegedly appeared at board meetings that sometimes only lasted a few minutes. The ousted council members each earned $100,000 per year for a part-time job working for one of the poorest cities in California.

"The evidence will show that these defendants stole over $1.3 million from the citizens of Bell. Over $300,000 of this was taken in about two minutes," said L.A. County Deputy District Attorney Ed Miller.

"As you can see, the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority only met for two minutes," said Miller in court. "Three of these boards went years where they did absolutely no work at all. They didn't meet."

The alleged corruption happened between 2006 and 2010. Revelations of the alleged corruption caused a furor in the city of 35,000 mostly low-income residents.

"What the prosecutor did not tell, again, about Robert Rizzo is that he created the agendas," said Ronald Kaye, defense attorney for George Cole.

Rizzo, the former city manager and alleged mastermind, will be tried separately. He had hired a city attorney and a city auditor who defendant George Cole says acted as their professional consultants.

"George Cole relied on these specialists. He had no legal training. He had no accounting training," said Kaye.

All counts are for misappropriation of public funds. The defense says the point is whether they took the salaries without lawful authority.

"What the evidence is going to show is that this was done through proper, open legislative means," said Alex Kessel, attorney for defendant George Mirabal.

Defendants described multiple projects and achievements to defend the amounts of their salaries.

The alleged ring leader of this corruption case is former City Administrator Robert Rizzo. Rizzo and his then-assistant Angela Spaccia will both be tried in separate trials. More than 50 counts of fraud have been filed against Rizzo. Rizzo earned an annual salary and compensation package worth $1.5 million while Spaccia was paid $376,288 per year.

Twelve jurors and six alternates were selected Wednesday after attorneys filtered 150 prospective jurors with the help of a 24-page questionnaire designed to eliminate those who may be biased by news coverage.

If convicted on all counts, the defendants could spend from 12 to 21 years behind bars. The trial continues Friday.

Copyright © 2024 KABC Television, LLC. All rights reserved.