March 21, 2013 / 1:00 AM / 7 years ago

Former California city officials 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.

Five former Bell City elected officials, Victor Bello, Oscar Hernandez, George Cole, Teresa Jacobo (bottom R-L), and George Mirabal (top C) were found guilty of stealing public money by paying themselves extraordinary salaries, in a Los Angeles Superior courtroom March 20, 2013. REUTERS/Irfan Khan/POOL

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.

The Bell scandal fueled a statewide debate over public pay and led to upheaval in the city of over 35,000 residents, who in 2011 voted to replace all their council members.

Capping two weeks of deliberations, a Los Angeles County jury on Wednesday 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. He wept as Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy told him he was free to go.

After acquitting Artiga, the jury of seven women and five men said they had deadlocked, 9-3, on remaining counts against his five co-defendants. They went home for the day and were expected to return on Thursday morning to resume deliberations.

One juror sent the court a note after the guilty verdicts were reached in which he said he had questions about information he felt had not been “presented properly,” and had left him with doubts.

Cole’s attorney, Ronald Kaye, seized on the note to ask the judge to question the juror about his verdict, on the grounds that he may have had a doubt that would undermine the panel’s unanimous decision on the guilty verdicts.

Judge Kennedy said she was “not going to re-open verdicts that have been reached.”

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.

Bellow’s attorney, Leo Moriarty, said outside court it was unclear how much time behind bars the convicted defendants could face, but he added that they could be sentenced to probation under the counts on which they have been found guilty.

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.”

The Bell scandal came to light when the Los Angeles Times in a series of articles revealed the city’s officials had secretly enriched themselves, and the paper won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for its coverage of the story.

Additional reporting by Dana Feldman:; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Dan Grebler and Xavier Briand

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