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Official denies guilt in Bell Gardens embezzlement case

May 03, 2008|Jack Leonard | Times Staff Writer

Bell Gardens City Councilman Mario Beltran pleaded not guilty Friday to charges that he embezzled more than $11,000 from his campaign funds to pay a defense attorney and expert witness in an unrelated criminal case.

The charges, stemming from a grand jury indictment unsealed Friday, are the latest in a series of encounters with the district attorney's office for the 31-year-old official.

Last year, Beltran was convicted of filing a false police report claiming he had been robbed. Witnesses said he had lost his wallet and City Council badge after collapsing drunk in the hallway of a hotel used by prostitutes. He was sentenced to three years' probation.

In November, prosecutors charged Beltran with failing to file campaign finance reports. Bank records in that case provided the evidence for the latest charges, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Max Huntsman.

The records showed that Beltran withdrew checks totaling $10,000 from his campaign account to pay his attorney, Philip Cohen, before and after last year's trial on the false police report, Huntsman said. The councilman used the same account to pay an expert witness $1,200, he said.

California law allows politicians to spend campaign funds for political and campaign purposes only.

"Legal defense can only be paid if it's directly related to the campaign," Huntsman said.

The prosecutor said Cohen and Beltran's expert witness were not suspects.

Jorge Gonzalez, Beltran's attorney in the new case, said his client has been accused of minor violations common among candidates running for office, and Gonzalez accused the district attorney's office of selective prosecution.

"Mario Beltran is one of the good guys," he said. "We're going to try to find out why the D.A. is going after him."

The new charges, which also include perjury and grand theft, carry a maximum prison sentence of seven years and four months.

Beltran, a former aide to state Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello), has until Friday to post $50,000 bail or risk being jailed.

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jack.leonard@latimes.com

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