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Potential jurors questioned for Bell corruption trial

Responses include outrage at the alleged wrongdoing and nausea at the mere mention of Bell. Many have little understanding of the case, but most say they could be impartial.

January 22, 2013|By Corina Knoll, Los Angeles Times
  • Former Bell City Council members Victor Bello and Luis Artiga, former Mayor Oscar Hernandez, former Assistant City Administrator Angela Spaccia, former Council Member George Mirabal, and former City Administrator Robert Rizzo, left to right, at a court appearance last year.
Former Bell City Council members Victor Bello and Luis Artiga, former Mayor… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

A lingering venom spilled out on questionnaires given to potential jurors for the trial of six former Bell city leaders charged with raiding the treasury in the small, working-class town.

"My mind is made up, I can't be impartial. I'm disgusted by the behavior," wrote one juror, who was excused Tuesday by a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge.

Another potential juror described being "riveted and repulsed by the greed and audacity" and had a "negative description of the case from news reporting."

The woman wrote that the ex-city officials had "raped constituents" and filled their own pockets. Whenever she heard the word "Bell," she wrote, she felt nauseated.

"Normally I think I can be a fair and impartial juror but as soon as I heard the judge mention Bell, I couldn't help forming opinions already."

One potential juror pumped her fist when she was excused.

But as jury selection wore on, and potential jurors were pressed about their recollection of the small-town scandal, memories seemed to fade, details rendered unclear.

The jury selection process is the warm-up act to a trial that has its roots in a municipal corruption case that exploded more than two years ago when investigators alleged that elected leaders and ranking administrators had been using the city's treasury as their "personal ATMs" by paying themselves extravagant salaries, loaning out city money and imposing illegal taxes on a small, largely immigrant town.

Former council members Luis Artiga, Victor Bello, George Cole, Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal are charged with drawing annual salaries of nearly $100,000, paychecks they allegedly fattened by drawing stipends for serving on boards and commissions that rarely, if ever, met. Former administrators Robert Rizzo and Angela Spaccia will stand trial at a later date.

About 150 potential jurors were asked to fill out questionnaires last week, and on Tuesday, nearly 65 had been dismissed. Attorneys said they expect the trial to begin Thursday.

According to Mirabal's attorney, the six defense attorneys had met with a jury consultant and spent the previous day going over the questionnaires together.

"It helped us weed out people who admitted they were predisposed to guilt," Alex Kessel said.

On Tuesday attorneys pooled their individual time to question jurors and attempted to gauge any preconceived notions about the case. Some jurors said they knew nothing about the defendants and the charges against them, while others said they were only vaguely familiar with the city of Bell. Few had a good understanding of the case.

"When I read about this it was a really long time ago and I don't really know all the details," said one woman. She said she had been outraged by Rizzo and felt city officials had neglected to do their duty, but couldn't remember much else.

"I don't know the names and I don't remember the details so, no, I don't have an opinion of the people sitting here," the potential juror said.

Those who said they had read news accounts of the defendants were pressed for their reaction.

"I thought oh my God, they did something wrong," said one woman when asked about her initial response.

Cole's attorney Ronald Kaye replied, "That's the media, that's the L.A. Times. Do you think the L.A. Times got it right?"

"Not always," the woman said.

The questionnaire had asked jurors about their main source of news and if they had an opinion of the Los Angeles Times' coverage of the case.

Some people who had worked in local government or with government officials said they couldn't help but contrast the defendants with their own colleagues who they couldn't imagine would even be accused of such a crime.

Although one man said he been a public employee for nearly three decades and had an "extremely negative, emotional response" to the news about Bell, nearly all the jurors said they had the ability to be impartial.

One woman seemed to sum up jurors' sentiments:

"To be honest I haven't paid very much attention," she said. "I just kind of dismissed it and, lo and behold, here I am."

corina.knoll@latimes.com

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