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Ex-Bell council members must decide on plea deal

Thursday is the deadline for five former Bell council members facing retrial on corruption charges to accept plea deal. All must agree or the offer is off.

April 02, 2014|By Jeff Gottlieb
  • Former Bell council member Victor Bello, center, is among five ex-Bell officials who are considering a plea deal.
Former Bell council member Victor Bello, center, is among five ex-Bell… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

Five former Bell council members — all convicted but facing retrial on additional corruption-related charges — must decide Thursday whether to take a plea bargain that could put them behind bars for up to four years.

The Los Angeles district attorney's office offered the deal on the condition that George Cole, Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo, Victor Bello and George Mirabal each agree to it.

If not all of them sign off on the deal, the offer would be taken off the table and the former city leaders would head to a second trial with a judge who has indicated repeatedly that she has grown weary of the 2010 Bell salary scandal.

At a hearing in February, when council members asked for more time to consider the offer, Cole's attorney said his client was ready to take the offer because of his poor health.

The former council members are already at risk of being sentenced to eight years in prison based on their convictions last year for misappropriating funds. They could face added time if they are convicted on additional charges in a second trial.

The salary scandal in the southeast Los Angeles County city exploded in 2010 when the enormous paychecks of the town's top leaders were exposed. Part-time council members were making nearly $100,000 a year, and the city's administrator, Robert Rizzo, had a compensation package of nearly $1.5 million annually, making him the highest paid municipal leader in California and likely the nation.

An investigation revealed that Rizzo had lent city money, wrote his own contracts and provided false documents about the size of his salary. The city was approaching bankruptcy when Rizzo, the city's assistant administrator and the police chief were forced to resign.

Rizzo pleaded no contest to 69 felony corruption charges last year and the judge said she probably will sentence him to 10 to 12 years in prison.

The city's former second in command, Angela Spaccia, was convicted late last year on 11 corruption charges. The prosecutor has recommended a sentence of more than 12 years. She is the only former Bell official already behind bars.

The ex-council members were convicted of boosting their salaries by being paid to serve on city boards that seldom, if ever, met. Jurors were unable to reach a verdict on some of the counts, positioning the city leaders to be tried a second time.

Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy has said she would sentence the council members individually, so it's possible that each could end up with a different sentence. The judge does not have to sentence them to prison terms.

The former council members would also face orders to pay restitution. Bell has calculated that Mirabal owes $242,293, Jacobo $242,229, Hernandez $241,331, Bello $177,634 and Cole $77,644.

The hearing Thursday is the start of a busy couple of weeks for the Bell defendants. Spaccia is scheduled for sentencing April 10.

Rizzo is set to be sentenced on federal tax fraud charges April 14. Two days later, he will be sentenced on the felony counts for his role in Bell.

jeffrey.gottlieb@latimes.com

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