Former Lynwood Councilman Fernando Pedroza illegally boosted his salary… (Gina Ferazzzi, Los Angeles…)
Two former Lynwood council members accused of illegally boosting their salaries were convicted Tuesday in a closely watched case that legal experts said could expand the definition of public corruption.
The guilty verdicts marked a significant victory for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office in its efforts to crack down on city officials who pay themselves excessive salaries. The Lynwood trial was seen as an important test case for prosecutors as they prepare to try former Bell council members accused of similar charges in a much higher-profile corruption scandal.
During the month-long trial, prosecutors used a novel legal argument that Lynwood officials broke the law by accepting tens of thousands of dollars in stipends for sitting on city commissions that appeared to do little, if any, work — an arrangement Deputy Dist. Atty. Sean Hassett called "clearly a scam."
The added pay boosted the part-time council members' income from less than $10,000 a year to as much as $112,000 in one year for Louis Byrd and $72,000 for Fernando Pedroza, prosecutors said.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Ed Miller said the verdicts sent a clear message to other government officials "that there's an assembly of people much more powerful than any city council in this country, and that's a jury of one's peers."
Lavish compensation has become a heated issue in cities across California since the Bell scandal broke in 2010, and experts said the Lynwood ruling is likely to force municipalities to take notice.
"It will certainly ... be helpful in providing guidance to cities and other public agencies in terms of what do they need to be careful about in compensating their elected officials," said Patrick Whitnell, the general counsel for the League of California Cities.
Jurors in the Compton courthouse deliberated more than four days before convicting both men of misappropriating public funds.
Prosecutors also accused the former council members of misusing city credit cards, charging the city for lavish travel expenses and accepting stipends for attending events that were unrelated to city business. Among the most salacious bills: a $1,500 night out at a Guadalajara strip club, where dancers allegedly performed sexual favors for Pedroza and a city manager. Pedroza denied the claim.
Jurors, however, said they were ultimately swayed by the allegation that it was illegal for the council members to collect $450 per meeting for a pair of city commissions that often met for only a few minutes at a time.
Juror Natalie Luker, 34, said the jurors looked carefully at the 1998 decision by the council members to create the commission stipends and ultimately decided that the compensation was illegal because the bylaws for the commissions specified that members were not to be paid.
Former Bell council members are also accused of accepting generous stipends for commission meetings, boosting the annual pay for most council members to nearly $100,000.
Attorney Stanley L. Friedman, who represents former Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez, said he believed the Lynwood jurors' reasoning might help his case because, unlike in Lynwood, there were no city documents in Bell prohibiting its commissions from paying stipends to members.
But part of the reason for the outrage over the Bell salaries is that council members appear to have been paid for some meetings that never took place, a fact that prosecutors are expected to raise in the trial.
Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson said Tuesday's convictions show that jurors are willing to accept that public officials cross a legal line when they pay themselves too much. She also said the verdicts will probably reverberate beyond Lynwood.
"There's nothing better for deterrence than seeing other people go to jail," said Levenson, a former federal prosecutor. "It's a pretty good taking of the temperature of prospective jurors in the upcoming cases."
Supporters of the defendants, particularly of Byrd, an 80-year-old former school principal who sat on the council for 16 years, packed the courtroom during much of the trial. The attorneys for the men argued that they had relied for legal advice on city attorneys and city managers who never alerted them that the commission pay might be illegal, and that they had put in many years of service to the community.
After the verdicts were read, both defense attorneys vowed to appeal. Albert Robles, who represented Pedroza, said he was "really shocked, really disappointed" by the jurors' decision. Byrd's attorney, Tomas Requejo, accused the district attorney's Public Integrity Division of selecting which public officials to pursue based on political reasons.