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Testimony in Bell corruption trial comes to a bickering end

A former councilman defends the city's huge salaries as a way to attract Latinos, and a prosecutor sarcastically asks him if he felt a need for a chauffeur to get around the small, working-class town.

February 16, 2013|By Jeff Gottlieb and Corina Knoll, Los Angeles Times
  • Residents gather in the Bell Community Center for a City Council meeting this month.
Residents gather in the Bell Community Center for a City Council meeting… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

Testimony in the corruption trial of six former Bell leaders came to a bickering end Friday with a former councilman defending the city's huge salaries as a way to attract Latinos and a prosecutor sarcastically asking him whether he also felt a need for a chauffeur to get around the small, working-class town.

Since the trial opened — nearly three years after the city began imploding under the weight of a corruption scandal — the defendants justified their nearly six-figure salaries as fair pay for long hours or as a payday forced upon them by a fearsome administrator. Besides, they argued, the city attorney never told them anything was illegal.

Next week the case goes to the jury, which will deliberate whether Luis Artiga, Victor Bello, George Cole, Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal broke the law by drawing salaries of up to nearly $100,000 a year by serving on boards and authorities that rarely met and did little work.

Three weeks of testimony has revealed a city government where salaries were falsified, unauthorized pension time was bought with city money, a councilman was banished from City Hall and the city clerk signed minutes for meetings she didn't attend.

Former City Manager Robert Rizzo was depicted as a vengeful strongman, beginning with the opening statements from defense attorneys — one of whom called the former administrator "the thief, the fraud, the destructor of the city."

On the witness stand, Jacobo, Mirabal and Cole insisted that they had been tireless public servants with full-time duties who were always on call and did most of their work in the community, not just during government meetings.

"I thought I was doing a very good job to be able to earn that, yes," Jacobo said when asked if she believed her salary was fair to the citizens of Bell.

However, an interview Mirabal gave prosecutors the day of his 2010 arrest appeared to contradict the self-laudatory testimony. Deputy Dist. Atty. Edward Miller on Friday played a recording of the interview in which Mirabal said he did little work for authorities outside of meetings.

"What about other City Council members?" Miller asked. "Were you aware of any of them doing work for the Public Finance Authority outside of the meetings?"

"No," Mirabal replied.

One of the trial's biggest surprises was that neither side called former Bell City Atty. Edward Lee, who wrote the city's charter and was repeatedly blamed by defendants for not informing them their salaries could be illegal. Lee had initially been on the prosecution's witness list.

Mirabal testified that at $13,000 a month, the least Lee could have done was to protect council members.

At times it seemed as if Lee and Rizzo were on trial.

Despite that, council members praised Rizzo's work for most of his tenure. "From the time he started, he was able to accomplish things other managers previous to him said couldn't be done," Cole testified.

Cole, who spent 24 years as a Bell civic booster, said his relationship with Rizzo splintered when the former councilman insisted on giving up the final year of his pay. At the time, Cole also was earning $95,000 a year as executive director of the Steelworkers Oldtimers Foundation.

Cole said he later voted for an annual 12% increase in council pay because he feared Rizzo would retaliate by harming educational and health programs he had established.

On Friday, Miller tried to dispel Cole's claim that high salaries were needed to bring more Latinos onto the council of the low-income, largely immigrant city. The prosecutor pointed out that fellow defendants Bello, Jacobo and Mirabal already were on the panel when he voted for a 2002 salary increase.

When Miller presented a document that ensured no employee hired or elected after June 30, 2005, would be eligible for the city's supplemental retirement plan, he asked Cole: "Wouldn't taking away that benefit adversely affect Latino representation on the City Council?"

Cole replied that it would.

"Did you vote for this because your friends on the City Council and yourself would be covered?" Miller asked.

"It looks like I did."

When Miller asked about the potential for a Bell council member to earn $100,000 — the salary of the other defendants — Cole appeared flustered. After being prodded several times, Cole admitted the resolutions made the salary possible.

Cole then pointed out that Los Angeles City Council members had a driver, car and staff. "I never had any of those," he said.

"Did you feel you needed a driver and a chauffeur to get around a 2½-square-mile city?" Miller asked.

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