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L.A. County D.A. plans to retry former Bell City Council members

Jurors delivered a mixed verdict on five defendants and acquitted a sixth on charges of misappropriating public funds by paying themselves huge salaries.

May 21, 2013|By Corina Knoll, Los Angeles Times
  • Former Bell City Council members are shown during their trial in March.
Former Bell City Council members are shown during their trial in March. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office plans to retry the case against Bell council members accused of misappropriating public funds by overpaying themselves for sitting on city boards and authorities that rarely met, according to defense attorneys connected with the case.

D.A. spokeswoman Jean Guccione said Tuesday that prosecutors want a retrial after jurors in March issued a mixed verdict and the judge declared a mistrial on some counts.

Jurors delivered a mixed verdict for Victor Bello, George Cole, Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal, finding them guilty on multiple felony counts and acquitting them on other charges.

Luis Artiga, a pastor, was the only defendant to win full acquittal. Guccione says prosecutors don't plan to challenge that decision.

The verdicts were announced after 17 days behind closed doors. Jurors, however, were asked to return for an additional day to deliberate on remaining counts that some believed could be decided after more direction from the court.

But that day came to a chaotic end with Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy declaring a mistrial on the outstanding counts after one juror asked to reconsider the guilty verdicts already reached and another passed a note urging the judge to "remind the jury to remain respectful and not to make false accusations and insults to one another."

Kennedy drew the case to a close March 21, saying: "All hell has broken loose."

The panel of seven women and five men had shown signs of discord throughout the trial, and the dissension worsened during the last few days, one juror said.

"It was very, very tense, and I believe that if we hadn't ended when we did, it probably could have been a lot worse," said the juror, who asked to remain anonymous and said she was in favor of guilt. "I believe that [the defendants] were good people but that wasn't what we were there to decide. I was doing my best to base everything on the evidence and the facts of the case."

The case will be retried by Deputy Dist. Attys. Sean Hassett and Max Huntsman, said Hernandez's attorney, Stanley Friedman. Edward Miller, the prosecutor who faced six attorneys during the earlier monthlong trial, has been transferred to the Healthcare Fraud Division.

"I'm not surprised given the politics of it all," Friedman said about the decision for a retrial. "It's an admission by the D.A.'s office that, largely, it was a favorable outcome for the defendants."

Before and during the trial, Robert Rizzo, who for 17 years served as Bell's chief administrative officer, was painted as the mastermind of the outsized salaries. He still faces trial on 69 felony counts.

Rizzo is scheduled to go on trial later this year with Angela Spaccia, his former assistant who faces 13 felony counts. She is employing a strategy similar to the council members': Blame Rizzo.

They have been ordered to appear Sept. 9, but it is unclear when their trial may begin. Spaccia's attorney, Harlan Braun, has signaled that he will seek to have his client's trial "severed" from Rizzo's, on the grounds that she will "be tainted by association with Rizzo."

For his part, Rizzo's attorney, James Spertus, has said he wants the case moved outside the Los Angeles Times' circulation area. The Times revealed the enormous salaries that Rizzo and others in the small, working-class city were drawing.

corina.knoll@latimes.com

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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