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Blame flies as Bell trial begins

Prosecutors depict six former Bell City Council members as greedy operators who schemed to collect large salaries by serving on government panels that did nothing.

January 24, 2013|By Corina Knoll, Jeff Gottlieb and Christopher Goffard, Los Angeles Times
  • Deputy district attorney Edward Miller presents his case against six former Bell City Council members to a jury.
Deputy district attorney Edward Miller presents his case against six former… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

The Bell corruption trial began Thursday with prosecutors depicting six former council members as greedy operators who schemed to collect outsized salaries by serving on various government boards that did nothing.

But attorneys for the former officials portrayed them as helpless pawns. They claim former City Administrator Robert Rizzo controlled the city and was the mastermind of the alleged corruption.

Ronald Kaye, attorney for former Councilman George Cole, went as far as to say the council members were "in a cocoon" and that Rizzo "didn't let them know what was going on in the city."

FULL COVERAGE: Bell corruption trial

The opening statements offer a preview to the much-anticipated trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Prosecutors insist the six council members were active participants in draining the city's treasury by giving themselves salaries that topped $100,000 a year.

The defendants have blamed Rizzo, who faces trial later this year along with his former assistant.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Edward Miller walked jurors through a PowerPoint presentation describing the tactics by which the former council members allegedly bilked taxpayers.

He said the defendants collected more than $1.3 million by serving on phantom boards that convened for as little as two minutes a year, sometimes gaveling in just to further increase their pay.

The commissions had important-sounding titles: Solid Waste and Recycling, Public Finance, Surplus Property, Community Housing.

For the accused city leaders, a place on the boards boosted pay to $100,000 a year for their part-time jobs, not counting retirement and medical benefits.

What work did they perform on the boards? Almost none, the prosecutor said, pointing out that between 2006 and 2007, the total meeting time for all of the boards was 34 minutes.

"The evidence will show that they worked less minutes than my opening statement will take this morning," Miller said.

The four boards each had just one item on their agenda at a June 30, 2008, meeting, the prosecutor said — pay raises that passed unanimously. They didn't meet again for the rest of the year.

He said that through all of 2006, the solid waste board, which did not even have a staff, met for two minutes — and then just to vote on members' pay.

"This was a sham from the beginning," he told the jury of eight women and four men.

At one point, the surplus property board had not met for nearly two years.

"Three of these boards went years where they didn't do any work," Miller told jurors. "They didn't meet. Did zero work. But that didn't stop the defendants from taking full salaries for those authorities."

The corruption case in Bell exploded more than two years ago when The Times revealed Rizzo's $800,000 salary and the lavish compensation package he and council members enjoyed. Authorities said the city's leaders also lent city money improperly and imposed illegal taxes on their largely poor constituents.

On Thursday, Miller described Rizzo as a "crook."

"So how did they get away with it?" the prosecutor asked jurors. "Well, unfortunately, participation by the community in Bell city politics wasn't very good."

The council pay was kept quiet even from one of its new members, Lorenzo Velez, a heavy-equipment operator who joined the council because "he wanted to help his community," the prosecutor said.

He was paid $673 a month and attended the same functions as other council members, the prosecutor said, yet had no idea he was making a fraction of his colleagues' six-figure salaries.

"But boy, was he surprised when the Bell scandal broke out and people started to accuse him of being a crook," the prosecutor said.

When defendant Victor Bello stepped down from the council in 2009, his resignation was announced at a council meeting, but his unusual new job was not. The city created a new position for him as assistant to the food bank coordinator. His pay was "exactly what he was making as a council member," Miller said.

At the food bank, Bello did the same work volunteers did, and the food bank coordinator believed he was one of them. He "had no idea Mr. Bello was being paid this tremendous salary to be his assistant," Miller said. "No one ever told him."

Defendants Cole, Bello, Luis Artiga, Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal all face potential prison terms if convicted.

Alex Kessel, Mirabal's attorney, blamed Bell's city attorney, Ed Lee, for not alerting the council members that they could be breaking the law. Lee has not been charged with a crime.

"For every resolution and ordinance created, the city attorney was right there at the meeting," Kessel said.

But most of the criticism was aimed at Rizzo.

Cole's attorney described his client as a dedicated civil servant who worked tirelessly for Bell. He said Cole will take the witness stand during the trial.

"George Cole honestly, reasonably and in good faith believed that his salary as a City Council person and for all the authorities was legal," Kaye said.

Cole trusted the wrong people, Kaye said, including Rizzo, a man he had known long before the city administrator became labeled "the thief, the fraud, the destructor of the city."

"It was reasonable to rely on this man because he had a track record of being this amazing, productive city manager," he said. "When he ripped off this city and these council members, he duped them."

He said Cole sometimes labored 60 hours a week to improve the blue-collar town, with a passion for improving education.

"This became his mission," Kaye said. "To protect the children of the city of Bell, to create a future for this immigrant community."

Corina.knoll@latimes.com

Jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com

Christopher.goffard@latimes.com

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