LOS ANGELES (CBS) — A prosecutor said Monday that never before in state history has there been a public corruption case as “extreme” as the one facing current and former Bell city officials, but the defense countered that everything that allegedly took place was “pursuant to the legislative process.”
Six of eight Bell defendants were in court for the start of hearings in which Superior Court Judge Henry J. Hall will determine if there is enough evidence to require them to stand trial on charges that they helped loot the small Los Angeles suburb of about $5.5 million.
In what is expected to take about a week, Hall will first hear the case against Mayor Oscar Hernandez, 63; Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo, 53; Councilman George Mirabal, 61, and former councilmen Luis Artiga, 49; George Cole, 61; and Victor Bello, 52.
“Never in the history of the state of California has there been a case where the members of a city council (have been charged with) paying themselves illegal salaries,” Deputy District Attorney Edward Miller told the judge in an opening statement. “The facts are so extreme.”
However, Alex Kessel, Mirabal’s attorney, argued that salaries were increased and paid “pursuant to the legislative process…There isn’t any back room conduct in this case.”
In his outline of the nearly two dozen charges facing the three current and three former members of the Bell City Council in court today, Miller told of city commissions that either never met or met only a few times, but resulted in huge salaries for officials.
The prosecutor pointed to the Solid Waste & Recycling Authority, for which the council members paid themselves $340,000 to attend two meetings.
“No one knows what the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority does,” Miller said. “Bell’s Solid Waste Authority was a solid waste of money.”
Ron Kaye, the attorney for Cole, objected to the characterization, telling the judge that everything that took place in Bell “was part of the public record.”
If Bell’s residents were so unhappy at the job performance of their civic leaders, Kaye said, “the remedy was to vote ’em out of office.”
The first witness, Bell Councilman Lorenzo Velez, who is not charged in the case, briefly took the stand today and is expected to resume testimony Tuesday.
The next case to be heard, possibly beginning next Monday, involves former Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo, 57; former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia, 52; and additional charges against Hernandez and Artiga.
Rizzo is also charged with conflict of interest and misappropriation of records in a separate case that is expected to be heard last and to take about a day.
The eight were arrested Sept. 21 in connection with allegations that they bilked taxpayers out of roughly $5.5 million through hefty salaries, benefits and illicit loans of public money.
“This was calculated greed and theft accomplished by deceit and secrecy,” District Attorney Steve Cooley said shortly after the arrests. ”
“This, needless to say, is corruption on steroids based upon our experience.”
The eight have pleaded not guilty, and all but Bello have been freed on bail.
Rizzo and other top city officials stepped down last July after the salary scandal broke.
The City Council members, who were earning almost $100,000 a year, significantly slashed their pay, but most balked at calls for their resignations. Artiga announced last October that he was leaving his post, saying “it’s in the best interest for the city of Bell that I resign.”
Lawyers for six current and former Bell City Council members said their clients have rejected plea deals that would have brought them two-year prison terms in exchange for admitting guilt and paying back all the money they allegedly looted from the city treasury, the Los Angeles Times reported late Monday.
However, Jennifer Lentz Snyder, head deputy of the District Attorney’s Office’s Public Integrity Division, said outside court that the discussion of plea deals is a standard part of the process.
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