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Judge refuses to dismiss charges against ex-Bell council members

Saying that being elected to the Bell City Council was 'somewhat akin to winning the lottery,' a judge refuses to dismiss corruption charges against six former council members.

December 02, 2011|By Jeff Gottlieb, Los Angeles Times
  • Former Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez, left, with former councilmembers George Mirabal, Victor Bello, and Teresa Jacobo in court last month. A judge on Thursday rejected their motion to dismiss the charges against them.
Former Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez, left, with former councilmembers George… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

A judge forcefully rejected a motion to drop corruption charges against six former Bell City Council members Thursday, dismissing their argument that they were entitled to annual salaries as high as $100,000 and saying that serving in the small, working-class city was "somewhat akin to winning the lottery."

In a scathing 10-page ruling, Judge Kathleen Kennedy pushed aside the former council members' argument that they did not know they might be breaking the law and that their salaries were protected by the city's charter, which was adopted in a little-noticed election that drew only several hundred voters.

"The city of Bell charter," Kennedy wrote, "did not make Bell a sovereign nation not subject to the general penal laws of the State of California."

The judge, who is scheduled to preside over the trial of the former Bell leaders, said that ignorance is not a defense and that the defendants "should have known that their conduct was illegal."

The six former council members, along with onetime City Administrator Robert Rizzo and his assistant, Angela Spaccia, were arrested last year.

The charges against George Cole, Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo, Luis Artiga, Victor Bello and George Mirabal stem from the way they made their money. Council members were the only ones who sat on four city boards that seldom if ever met. By 2010, they were being paid $1,453 a month for serving on each of the boards.

Kennedy said that when the boards met, "the majority of their meetings involved passing resolutions increasing their pay."

"These resolutions," the judge added, "were cast in a manner that it would be difficult if not impossible for a citizen of Bell to even realize that their net effect was to increase the compensation of council members."

Defense attorneys argued that their clients didn't know their salaries were divided among the boards and insisted that council members worked hard on board business but that minutes of the meetings were incompetently kept and didn't reflect the time they put in.

The attorneys also have argued that when just over 300 voters went to the polls in 2005 and approved a measure making Bell a charter city, it allowed council members to get around a state law that limited their pay.

Defense attorneys said they realized their attempt to get the charges tossed was a long shot but said they intend to appeal.

"This is an unprecedented case," said Ronald Kaye, Cole's attorney. "Legislators, judges, governors, when they receive too much money or when they are not doing the quality of job people think they are expected to do, the remedy is to kick them out of office."

Rizzo and Spaccia are accused of looting the city by drawing huge salaries that the council never approved, giving themselves extra benefits and lending city money to employees and business owners.

Rizzo was receiving annual compensation of about $1.5 million when the Bell scandal erupted in July.

No trial dates have been set. All of the defendants are free on bail.

Kennedy is the second judge to excoriate the former council members. After a seven-day preliminary hearing in February, Judge Henry J. Hall suggested that prosecutors charge the former officials with additional crimes. He ordered the defendants to stay away from City Hall and have nothing to do with city business, even though three of them were still on the council, one as mayor.

jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com

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