Bell Trial Defendant: Hope The Truth Comes Out - KMSP-TV

Bell Trial Defendant: Hope The Truth Comes Out

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Bell, CA -

Truth time. That may best sum up what one of the "Bell 6" was thinking.

A couple of hours before opening statements Luis Artigo -- one of the six former Bell City Council members accused of misappropriating public funds -- walked into the courthouse with Former Mayor Oscar Hernandez. It was raining. Both slowed down a little as they saw me. Hernandez had no response when I asked "what are you hoping for as this starts today?" But Artigo said he's "hoping for the truth to come out."

It's been over two years since the crisis in Bell that nearly sent the small town over the financial cliff. The preliminary hearing was in February of 2011. So, it's been a long time since the story broke that made national headlines about a city manager making $800,000 a year and about the same amount in benefits making his annual income over $1.5 million. And, council members who were supposed to get part-time pay making almost $100,000 a year plus benefits.

Former District Attorney Steve Cooley filed the case and called it "corruption on steroids."

This legal drama will play out in two courtroom cases. The first is the former mayor and the five on trial now. After the trial of the "Bell 6" ends, which is expected to be in about a month, an even bigger case will play out: The case involving City Manager Robert Rizzo and Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia.

And, what about cameras in the courtroom?

Judge Kathleen Kennedy says they can be in the courtroom for the opening statements, the closing statements, and the verdict. In other words, don't expect a OJ Simpson or Conrad Murray-like daily TV show in the trial of the Bell defendants.







LOS ANGELES (AP) -- With six former city officials lined up in chairs behind him, a Los Angeles County prosecutor portrayed them Thursday as thieves who bilked their small town treasury for over $1.3 million, paying themselves for work they did not do.
In one instance, the defendants stole more than $300,000 during a two-minute meeting in which they voted themselves salary raises for sham positions on commissions that did nothing, said Deputy district Attorney Edward Miller.
"The evidence will show the defendants stole over $1.3 million," he said.
Running through the list of meetings that lasted a few minutes each, Miller said, "They worked less hours than my opening statement will take this morning."  
Legally, he said, the officials could have paid themselves $673 a month for what was a part-time job since they did not actually run the city. The blue collar suburb of Los Angeles was managed by Robert Rizzo, who stands trial later in the year with his assistant city manager on allegations he misappropriated millions.
In addition to their council salaries of upward of $80,000 a year, the officials collected payment for sitting on the boards of four sham commissions that did no work, Miller said.
He alleged a pattern of scams in which the defendants appointed each other to the commissions that did nothing, held meetings that sometimes lasted only two minutes, and often met yearly just to increase their salaries.
The most blatant, he said, was creation of the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, which he called "a fiction" designed to line the officials' pockets.
"They gave themselves raises which were not even drafted by a lawyer. Somebody just made this up out of the blue," Miller said.
The former mayor, vice mayor and four City Council members are charged with misappropriation of public funds. All but one of the defendants served as mayor at some point.
Prosecutors said the city treasury was looted to the tune of $5.5 million and the modest city of Bell was driven to the brink of bankruptcy.
Miller said the yearslong scam thrived because few people every attended City Council meetings to keep watch on their elected leaders. At one meeting, 12 people were in the audience and most were relatives of the council members, he said.
Those now on trial are former Mayor Oscar Hernandez, former vice mayor Teresa Jacobo and former council members George Mirabal, George Cole, Victor Bello and Luis Artiga.
Their lawyers were to speak later in the day and were expected to argue that they were upstanding citizens who worked hard for the city.
The six are charged in a 20-count felony complaint accusing them of paying themselves exorbitant salaries and setting up sham commissions.
Miller said the alleged wrongdoing was discovered in 2008 when Roger Ramirez, a citizen who attended council meetings regularly, heard that Rizzo was being paid $400,000 a year and council members were being paid $80,000. He asked for an accounting and despite efforts by Rizzo to avoid the revelations, they became public.
Outraged residents who had seen their taxes and fees go up turned out by the thousands to protest when the scandal broke. They held a successful recall election and threw out the entire council.

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