Five former Bell city officials were convicted Wednesday of misappropriating public funds by accepting exorbitant salaries while representing the small municipality, but jurors acquitted them of some charges and exonerated one former councilman altogether.
Former Mayor Oscar Hernandez and former council members Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal were each convicted of five counts of misappropriation of public funds and acquitted of five others. Former Councilman George Cole was convicted of two counts and acquitted of two others, while former Councilman Victor Bello was convicted of four counts and acquitted of four others.
Former Councilman Luis Artiga was the only defendant to be completely exonerated, with jurors acquitting him of all 12 counts against him. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy told Artiga, who cried as the verdicts were announced, “You’re free to go, sir.”
“First and foremost, I want to thank my Lord and savior Jesus Christ for setting me free of these false accusations,” Artiga, a pastor, said outside the courtroom as his family members gathered around him in tears.
Artiga told reporters he had been “falsely accused” and said he maintained from the beginning that “the truth was going to set me free.”
“I didn’t go there for the money,” he said.
Artiga’s attorney, George Mgdesyan, told reporters that his client was not on the council at the time it voted to raise the council members’ salaries for their work on the city boards, adding that all his client did was “work hard for the city of Bell.”
The seven-woman, five-man jury was unable to reach verdicts on the remaining counts against the five other defendants, with the panel’s foreman telling Kennedy the jury was split 9-3 on each count — without revealing whether the jury was leaning toward conviction or acquittal.
The judge asked if anything further could be done, noting, “I hate to say further deliberations because you have deliberated and deliberated and deliberated.”
Four of the female jurors indicated, however, that the deadlock might be resolved with some further instructions from the judge. Kennedy told the panel to break for lunch and come back this afternoon and submit specific questions that might help the jury reach verdicts.
The judge noted that the panel had been involved in “extended deliberations,” with the foreman saying that the jury had taken “multiple” votes on the charges on which they had not been able to reach verdicts.
Jurors initially got the case Feb. 22, but a juror was replaced Feb. 28 — with the judge ordering the panel to begin its deliberations anew – after an alternate juror replaced a panelist who acknowledged she had done research on the Internet and talked to her daughter about what she called “the abuse” she suffered from other jurors.
The reconstituted panel was in its 13th day of deliberations when it buzzed at about 10 a.m. to notify the court that it had reached verdicts.
Bello’s attorney, Leo J. Moriarty, said after the morning session that it was unclear how much time behind bars the five defendants could face, but said they could simply be sentenced to probation under the counts on which they have been convicted.
Deputy District Attorney Edward Miller told jurors during the trial that the officials misappropriated public funds by collecting unlawful salaries for sitting on four city boards — the Community Housing Authority, Surplus Property Authority, Public Financing Authority and Solid Waste and Recycling Authority — that rarely met.
Defense attorneys maintained their clients were wrongly accused, arguing they worked diligently for the city and earned their salaries.
All six defendants were acquitted of charges involving payment for service as a member of the city’s Public Financing Authority.
Hernandez, Jacobo, Mirabal, Bello and Cole were each convicted of charges involving payment for their service on the city’s Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, but jurors deadlocked on 10 charges involving payment for their work on the city’s Community Housing Authority and the Surplus Property Authority.
Hernandez, 65, Jacobo, 55, and Mirabal, 63, were each charged with 20 counts of misappropriating public funds between January 2006 and July 2010; Bello, 54, was charged with 16 counts of misappropriation between January 2006 and December 2009; Artiga, 52, was charged with 12 counts of misappropriation between January 2008 and July 2010; and Cole, 63, was charged with eight counts of misappropriation between January 2006 and December 2007.
Former City Manager Robert Rizzo, 59, who is accused of being the mastermind of the alleged corruption scheme, is awaiting trial separately, along with former assistant Angela Spaccia, 54, on corruption-related charges.
Hearing the verdicts, BASTA (Bell Association to Stop the Abuse), a grassroots organization formed in the wake of the Bell corruption scandal, issued a statement expressing “relief” that the jury had found the “Bell Six” guilty.
“This verdict is long awaited and further vindicates the community’s efforts to move out of the shadow of Rizzo corrupt regime. The jury’s verdict is a clear step in helping the Bell community to heal.”
They urged the judge to hand down stiff sentences when the time comes, and said the city should not be responsible for the legal expenses incurred by the “corrupt council members who need to finally take full responsibility for their wrongdoing.”
“It is reassuring to know that our judicial system is not broken, and that justice can be served,” said BASTA representative Fidencio Gallardo.
But according to BASTA, the ordeal the city has gone through is not yet over: “Until there are convictions of every councilmember and former administrator guilty of criminal actions against the citizens of Bell, Bell residents will not feel that justice has been met,” they said. “We now look to the trial of Rizzo and Spaccia and hope that the judicial system continues to do its part.”