LOS ANGELES – Defense attorneys urged jurors today to acquit a former Bell mayor and two ex-city council members of charges that they misappropriated funds by collecting exorbitant salaries, arguing their clients had been falsely accused of criminal misconduct that has tarnished their reputations.
Lawyers for former Mayor Oscar Hernandez and former councilmen Luis Artiga and Victor Bello told the Los Angeles Superior Court jury that the prosecution had failed to prove its case against the three, who are charged along with former council members Teresa Jacobo, George Cole and George Mirabal.
Hernandez, 65, Jacobo, 55, and Mirabal, 63, are each charged with 20 counts of misappropriating public funds between January 2006 and July 2010.
Bello, 54, is charged with 16 counts of misappropriation between January 2006 and December 2009, while Artiga, 52, is charged with 12 counts of misappropriation between January 2008 and July 2010 and Cole, 63, is charged with eight counts of misappropriation between January 2006 and December 2007.
Hernandez’s attorney, Stanley Friedman, told jurors during his closing argument that the council members “did a lot more” than kissing babies, shaking hands and cutting ribbons.
The defense lawyer showed jurors a list that included the names of the city attorney, city clerk, the city’s auditing firm, police chief and city engineer, and said none of them told Hernandez that the council members’ salaries were illegal.
“Nobody thought the salaries were illegal … He didn’t think it was illegal. Nobody did,” Friedman told the seven-woman, five-man panel. “It certainly wasn’t criminally negligent for him to rely on the advice of (then City Attorney) Ed Lee.”
Artiga’s attorney, George Mgdesyan, said the prosecution had not even gotten close to proving its case.
“This case is full of holes and speculation against my client,” he told jurors, describing Artiga as “working hard every day” at a post he thought was a full-time job.
“He’s being prosecuted for receiving money that he worked hard for,” Mgdesyan said.
Artiga’s attorney said his client had been on the council for less than two years and didn’t vote on his salary, which he described as being $65,000 to $70,000 — rather than $100,000 as Deputy District Attorney Edward Miller said in his closing argument.
“What was my client supposed to do? Did he have a right to presume it was lawful?” Artiga’s attorney asked jurors.
He described Artiga as a man who “wanted the best for the citizens of Bell” and was “not this greedy person that the prosecutor wants to portray.” Mgdesyan said his client had been “falsely accused” and that his reputation had been “tarnished” as a result of the charges.
Bello’s attorney, Leo Moriarty, told jurors that they would be acting as a bridge over troubled waters for his client, referring to the troubled waters as “the criminal prosecution in this matter.”
“The prosecution’s case is an imaginary evil. It’s an evil that doesn’t exist,” he said, telling jurors that there was “nothing of substance” in the government’s case.
Moriarty said the prosecutor’s characterization of Bello being “nothing more than a charlatan” and a man who was paid $100,000 a year to work at the city’s food bank after leaving the council was “absolutely contrary to what Mr. Bello is and was.”
He said the six defendants had “done nothing wrong to justify them being here today,” and “were not just paid to be at the city council meetings.”
Bello’s attorney called his client “totally innocent,” saying it was “not a matter of the city of Bell defendants here thinking they were above the law” as the prosecution contends. The jury was set to hear this afternoon from Mirabal’s attorney, Alex Kessel. Jurors were also expected to hear a rebuttal argument from the prosecution before the case is turned over to them. In his closing argument Wednesday, the prosecutor told jurors that the six gouged taxpayers by collecting “outrageous salaries” for serving on various city agencies in a “city turned upside down by a culture of corruption.”
Miller contended that the defendants paid themselves illegal salaries for sitting on four boards — the Community Housing Authority, Surplus Property Authority, Public Financing Authority and Solid Waste and Recycling Authority.
“There was no authority of law for these outrageous salaries the defendants paid themselves,” the deputy district attorney told jurors. “… There’s none, zip.”
“The defendants in this case believed they were above the law and carried out their duties with a criminal disregard …,” Miller said. “This was a city turned upside down by a culture of corruption.”
Miller showed jurors an organizational chart of the city, with the electorate at the top. He then flipped it over, saying the defendants didn’t have residents at the top of their chart.
In closing arguments Wednesday, attorneys for Jacobo and Cole maintained that their clients relied on the city attorney and an independent auditor who never questioned their salaries, and said the defendants honestly believed the money reflected a reasonable amount given the time they spent doing city work.
In urging jurors to acquit his client, Jacobo’s attorney, Shepard Kopp, said the vast majority of his client’s work was “not done within the confines of a city council meeting” and said the government’s case was “based on a fundamental misunderstanding.”
“They’ve been focused all along on the meetings and only the meetings, and that’s not where the work was done,” Kopp said, calling Jacobo a “person who was deeply dedicated to her community.”
Cole’s attorney, Ronald Kaye, called his client “a decent, hard-working and honest human being” who worked tirelessly on behalf of the city and “relied on professionals” to advise him if there was a problem with the council members’ salaries.
Kaye said the former councilman — who stopped taking a city salary in 2007 — voted in 2008 to increase the salaries of his fellow council members “because he feared his programs would be attacked by Robert Rizzo,” who was then the city manager.
Jacobo, Mirabal and Cole all testified in their own defense during the trial, insisting in part that they were paid in accordance with the amount of work they performed for the city.
Rizzo and his then-assistant, Angela Spaccia, are awaiting trial in a separate corruption case. More than 50 counts of fraud have been filed against against Rizzo, seen as the ringleader of the alleged effort to loot the city’s treasury by paying bloated salaries to himself and other officials and arranging illicit loans of taxpayer money.