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Five ex-officials from Bell, California, convicted in corruption trial

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Five former elected officials from the scandal-plagued California city of Bell were convicted on Wednesday of misusing municipal funds by collecting exorbitant salaries in a case that drew national attention as a symbol of public corruption.

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Capping two weeks of deliberations, a Los Angeles County jury found ex-Mayor Oscar Hernandez and former City Council members Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal each guilty on five felony counts of misappropriation of public funds and acquitted them of five other counts.

Former Councilman George Cole was convicted of two counts and acquitted of two others, while ex-Councilman Victor Bellow was found guilty of four counts and acquitted of four others.

A sixth defendant, former Councilman Luis Artiga, was acquitted of all 12 counts against him and wept openly as Judge Kathleen Kennedy told him he was free to go.

The trial stemmed from an explosive scandal in Bell, a small, mostly blue-collar municipality near Los Angeles, following revelations in 2010 that its city manager, Robert Rizzo, was paid a salary of $787,000 - or nearly twice that of President Barack Obama.

Rizzo faces a separate trial with his onetime assistant, Angela Spaccia, on public corruption-related charges.

After acquitting Artiga, the jury of seven women and five men said they deadlocked, 9-3, on remaining counts against his five co-defendants and indicated they might be able to reach a unanimous verdict with some further instructions from the judge.

She told the panel to break for lunch and return in the afternoon to submit specific questions on issues that might help jurors render a verdict on the outstanding charges.

All six former officials on trial had been accused of giving themselves extravagant pay for sitting on various municipal boards - the Community Housing Authority, Surplus Property Authority, Public Financing Authority and Solid Waste and Recycling Authority - that rarely met to conduct business.

Defense lawyers argued that their clients were wrongly accused, had worked hard for the city and earned their salaries.

The eight former city officials arrested in September 2010 in the investigation were collectively accused of bilking taxpayers out of roughly $5.5 million through excessive salaries, benefits and illicit loans of public money. Then-Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley called it a case of “corruption on steroids.”

Reporting by Steve Gorman and Dana Feldman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Dan Grebler