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Judge orders six Bell leaders to trial, calling their alleged actions 'appalling'

Current and former council members will be arraigned in March. Judge blasts 'sham agencies' that boosted their pay to $100,000, orders them to stay away from City Hall and suggests more criminal charges.

February 17, 2011|By Jeff Gottlieb and Corina Knoll, Los Angeles Times
  • Attorney Leo Moriarty makes an argument for his client Victor Bello on the last day of a preliminary hearing in L.A. County Superior Court. The judge ordered Bello and five other current and former Bell council members to stand trial for alleged corruption.
Attorney Leo Moriarty makes an argument for his client Victor Bello on the… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge Wednesday excoriated six current and former Bell City Council members as he ordered them to stand trial for allegedly looting the city treasury and to stay away from City Hall, a directive that will complicate the city's efforts to dodge financial crisis.

"The allegations are, in my opinion, appalling," Judge Henry J. Hall said. "These people may not be involved in the running of that city in any shape or form."

The judge said he had considered ordering the city leaders back to jail and suggested prosecutors consider additional charges.

With the city teetering on insolvency, Bell's interim city administrator has urged the council to consider deep cuts to avert bankruptcy. The judge's order leaves Bell without a working city council until municipal elections are held next month.

But Hall said it was imperative to keep the accused council members away from city business and noted that the council was already "effectively shut down" since Mayor Oscar Hernandez and Councilwoman Teresa Jacobo had not attended recent meetings, leaving the council without a quorum.

At the end of the seven-day preliminary hearing, Hall said his decision to order Hernandez, Jacobo, Councilman George Mirabal and former council members Luis Artiga, Victor Bello and George Cole to stand trial was easy. "This is not really a difficult case," he said.

The defendants are free on bail, except for Bello, who has been unable to post bond.

The council members declined to comment. Some family members were in tears. "Don't worry about it," Jacobo told a woman, "we're fine."

Council members were charged with being paid as members of city boards that met for just a few minutes, if at all. The majority of their near-$100,000 salaries came from these boards. The judge called several of the boards "sham agencies" and said council members' pay violated the city charter.

Hall said that there was no basis to create the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority and that any compensation for Public Finance Agency members was illegal. He said Solid Waste was established in 2005 and didn't hold a meeting until February 2006, when council members raised their pay.

The judge said the Surplus Property Authority held just four meetings in four years that lasted a total of five minutes. For that work, he said, Hernandez was paid $73,108 — the equivalent of $877,000 an hour.

Hall told Deputy Dist. Atty. Edward Miller that he should consider also charging the defendants with aggravated white collar crime and with taking payments from the planning commission.

Alex Kessel, Mirabal's attorney, said he wasn't surprised by the outcome. "I believe the court had an agenda," Kessel said.

Ronald Kaye, Cole's attorney, told the court the case was "unfair, politically motivated and an unjust prosecution, and it should stop now."

Walking back and forth in the courtroom and leaning on a lectern, Kaye called the alleged wrongdoing in Bell "one of the most publicized municipal scandals in Los Angeles County, albeit in the United States."

Kaye said the six current and former council members had become victims. "All of a sudden they are dragged into the court, dragged into the media as being these pariahs," he said.

They are scheduled to be arraigned March 2.

The judge's ruling sets the stage for a second preliminary hearing to begin Tuesday for two Bell officials prosecutors describe as the architects of an effort to steal more than $5 million from one of L.A. County's poorest cities.

Former City Administrator Robert Rizzo and his assistant, Angela Spaccia, were among the highest-paid city officials in California, if not the country, before they were forced to resign after The Times revealed their huge salaries.

The two are accused of writing their own employment contracts, which were not approved by the council. Rizzo is also charged with falsifying public records to keep his and the council's salaries secret and with giving out nearly $1.9 million in unauthorized city loans.

Artiga and Hernandez are charged in the case because they received loans.

Rizzo is the sole defendant in the final hearing, in which he is accused of conflict of interest for his dealings with Dennis Tarango, who served as Bell's privately contracted planning director. The two once owned racehorses together. The city has paid Tarango's firms $10.4 million since 1995, according to the state controller's office.

jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com

corina.knoll@latimes.com

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