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Bell trial's closing arguments marked by anger and passion

Prosecution depicts the six former City Council members as thieves, while the defense portrays them as hard-working public servants. The six are accused of corruption.

February 20, 2013|By Jeff Gottlieb and Corina Knoll, Los Angeles Times
  • Former Bell City Council members Luis Artiga, left, Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal, George Cole and former Mayor Oscar Hernandez stand as the jury leaves the courtroom for lunch on Wednesday. Closing arguments were underway.
Former Bell City Council members Luis Artiga, left, Teresa Jacobo, George… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

During closing statements that were both impassioned and scornful, the prosecution presented the six former City Council members accused in the Bell corruption trial as thieves who fleeced a small, working-class town, while the defense portrayed them as hard-working public servants dedicated to their community.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Edward Miller took aim at the defendants, saying that instead of serving their low-income constituents, they were more interested in fattening their wallets.

"I'm talking about taking big money — money from poor people, money from tenants in low-income housing," he said.

FULL COVERAGE: Bell corruption trial

As the four-week trial in the municipal corruption case winds down, the case will probably go to the jury late this week. Luis Artiga, Victor Bello, George Cole, Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal are accused of misappropriating city funds by drawing annual salaries of up to $100,000 for work on city boards that seldom met and did little work.

Miller lambasted the defendants' work on four city authorities, and said the dozens of documents shown throughout the trial — including resolutions for pay raises — were "the instruments by which they stole $1.3 million from the citizens of Bell — proof that the pen is mightier than the sword when it comes to white-collar crime."

During his 77-minute statement, Miller tore down each defendant.

Talking about Cole, who testified that he had voted for a 12% annual raise because he feared then-City Administrator Robert Rizzo, Miller said: "Boy, I sure wish my boss would threaten me with a raise."

Miller called Bello's work with the food bank, a job he was given after resigning from the council, a scam.

"Every time one of the recipients looked at him as an angel of mercy, they were actually looking at nothing more than a charlatan, a fake, a phony, a $100,000-a-year volunteer," he said.

Mirabal, he said, had been city clerk, Jacobo a real estate agent and Hernandez a grocery store owner.

"They just weren't 'yes men,' except when it came to pay raises for themselves," he said.

Artiga, a church pastor who was appointed to the council in 2008 when Cole resigned, had a responsibility to determine the appropriateness of his salary, Miller said.

Defense attorneys shot back, reminding jurors that witnesses had testified that their clients worked tirelessly for the community. The defendants, attorneys said, relied on experts who never waved a red flag over the salaries.

Jacobo's attorney, Shepard Kopp, brought up his client's testimony that Rizzo and City Atty. Edward Lee said her pay raise would be legal.

Kopp also questioned why Lee wasn't called as a prosecution witness. "He either drafted or reviewed every single one of these resolutions that raised their pay. He never said a word to Ms. Jacobo or anyone else there was a problem with it."

Kopp argued that although state law fixed salaries for the Bell Community Housing Authority at a maximum of $50 for each of four meetings a month, that did not include payment for work outside meetings.

The prosecution, Kopp said, has "been focused only on the meetings and that's not where the work is done."

Ronald Kaye, Cole's attorney, said nothing had proved that his client believed his pay for the authorities was more than an accounting and bookkeeping procedure.

Kaye imitated Miller's voice and attacked the prosecutor for offering "misleading" evidence. He also referred to Rizzo as "a vindictive control freak."

The defense attorney made a final plea for his client: "They can defame him. They can falsely arrest him. They can destroy his reputation. They can haul him into court.... But this prosecutor does not control his fate anymore.

"Go back to that jury room and give George Cole back his life."

Closing arguments will continue Thursday.

jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com

corina.knoll@latimes.com

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