Former Bell Councilwoman Teresa Jacobo listens during the opening of the… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)
Less than three years ago, they were handcuffed and taken away in a case alleged to be so extensive that the district attorney called it "corruption on steroids."
But on Monday, two of the six former Bell council members accused of misappropriating money from the small, mostly immigrant town took to the witness stand and defended themselves as honorable public servants who earned their near-$100,000 salaries by working long hours behind the scenes.
During her three days on the stand, Teresa Jacobo said she responded to constituents who called her cell and home phone at all hours. She put in time at the city's food bank, organized breast cancer awareness marches, sometimes paid for hotel rooms for the homeless and was a staunch advocate for education.
"I was working very hard to improve the lives of the citizens of Bell," she said. "I was bringing in programs and working with them to build leadership and good families, strong families."
Jacobo, 60, said she didn't question the appropriateness of her salary, which made her one of the highest-paid part-time council members in the state.
Former Councilman George Mirabal said he too worked a long, irregular schedule when it came to city affairs.
"I keep hearing time frames over and over again, but there's no clock when you're working on the council," he said Monday. "You're working on the circumstances that are facing you. If a family calls
Mirabal, 65, said he often reached out to low-income residents who didn't make it to council meetings, attended workshops to learn how to improve civic affairs and once even made a trip to a San Diego high school to research opening a similar tech charter school in Bell.
"Do you believe you gave everything you could to the citizens of Bell?" asked his attorney, Alex Kessel.
"I'd give more," Mirabal replied.
Both Mirabal and Jacobo testified that not only did they perceive their salaries to be reasonable, but they believed them to be lawful because they were drawn up by the city manager and voted on in open session with the city attorney present.
Mirabal, who once served as Bell's city clerk, even went so far as to say that he was still a firm supporter of the city charter that passed in 2005, viewing it as Bell's "constitution." In a taped interview with authorities, one of Mirabal's council colleagues -- Victor Bello -- said the city manager told him the charter cleared the way for higher council salaries.
Prosecutors have depicted the defendants as salary gluttons who put their city on a path toward bankruptcy. Mirabal and Jacobo, along with Bello, Luis Artiga, George Cole and Oscar Hernandez, are accused of drawing those paychecks from boards that seldom met and did little work. All face potential prison terms if convicted.
Prosecutors have cited the city's Solid Waste and Recycling Authority as a phantom committee, created only as a device for increasing the council's pay. But defense attorneys said the authority had a very real function, even in a city that contracted with an outside trash company.
Jacobo testified that she understood the introduction of that authority to be merely a legal process and that its purpose was to discuss how Bell might start its own city-run trash service.
A former contract manager for Consolidated Disposal Service testified that Bell officials had been unhappy with the response time to bulky item pickups, terminating their contract about 2005, but that it took about six years to finalize because of an agreement that automatically renewed every year.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Edward Miller questioned Mirabal about the day shortly after his 2010 arrest that he voluntarily told prosecutors that no work was done on authorities outside of meetings.
Mirabal said that if he had made such a statement, it was incorrect. He said he couldn't remember what was said back then and "might have heed and hawed."
"So it's easy to remember now?" Miller asked.
"More than two years after charges have been filed, it's easier for you to remember now that you did work outside of the meetings for the Public Finance Authority?"
Miller later asked Mirabal to explain a paragraph included on City Council agendas that began with the phrase, "City Council members are like you."
After some clarification of the question, Mirabal answered: "That everybody is equal and that if they look into themselves, they would see us."