LOS ANGELES – Five former Bell city officials were convicted today of misappropriating public funds by accepting exorbitant salaries while representing the small municipality, but jurors acquitted them of some charges and exonerated one former councilman altogether.
Former Mayor Oscar Hernandez and former council members Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal were each convicted of five counts of misappropriation of public funds and acquitted of five others. Former Councilman George Cole was convicted of two counts and acquitted of two others, while former Councilman Victor Bello was convicted of four counts and acquitted of four others.
Former Councilman Luis Artiga was the only defendant to be completely exonerated, with jurors acquitting him of all 12 counts against him. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy told Artiga, who cried as the verdicts were announced, “You’re free to go, sir.”
“First and foremost, I want to thank my Lord and savior Jesus Christ for setting me free of these false accusations,” Artiga, a pastor, said outside the courtroom as relatives gathered around him in tears.
Artiga told reporters he had been “falsely accused” and said he maintained from the beginning that “the truth was going to set me free.”
“I didn’t go there for the money,” he said.
Artiga’s attorney, George Mgdesyan, told reporters that his client was not on the council when it voted to raise the members’ salaries for their work on various city boards, adding that all his client did was “work hard for the city of Bell.”
The seven-woman, five-man jury was unable to reach verdicts on the remaining counts against the five other defendants, with the panel’s foreman telling Kennedy the jury was split 9-3 on each count — without revealing whether the jury was leaning toward conviction or acquittal.
The judge asked if anything further could be done, noting, “I hate to say further deliberations because you have deliberated and deliberated and deliberated.”
The judge noted that the panel had been involved in “extended deliberations,” with the foreman saying the jury had taken “multiple” votes on the charges on which they had not been able to reach verdicts.
Four of the female jurors indicated, however, that the deadlock might be resolved with some further instructions from the judge. After the lunch break, they sent notes asking for clarification on the laws related to Bell’s Community Housing Authority, whether state law supersedes the city’s charter and further detail on the definition of wrongful intent.
Another juror sent a note in which he wrote that if new information was provided it would not be fair for the Solid Waste Authority — hours after the five defendants were convicted of charges involving payments for service on Bell’s Solid Waste and Recycling Authority. That juror also noted that he questioned himself on information that he felt wasn’t “presented properly,” writing that it “had me on a (doubt).”
The note prompted Cole’s attorney, Ronald Kaye, to ask the judge to individually question the juror about his verdict, saying that it suggested the juror may have had a doubt about the jury’s decision.
The judge responded that jurors had indicated “those were their verdicts” and that she was “not going to re-open verdicts that have been reached.” She said she was “only going to entertain questions for which no verdicts have been entered.”
The jury is due back in court Thursday morning, when the judge is expected to respond to the questions after consulting with attorneys.
Jurors initially got the case Feb. 22, but a juror was replaced Feb. 28 – – with the judge ordering the panel to begin its deliberations anew — after an alternate juror replaced a panelist who acknowledged she had done research on the Internet and talked to her daughter about what she called “the abuse” she suffered from other jurors.
The reconstituted panel was in its 13th day of deliberations when it buzzed at about 10 a.m. to notify the court that it had reached verdicts.
Bello’s attorney, Leo J. Moriarty, said after the morning session that it was unclear how much time behind bars the five defendants could face, but he said they could simply be sentenced to probation under the counts on which they have been convicted.
Deputy District Attorney Edward Miller told jurors during the trial that the officials misappropriated public funds by collecting unlawful salaries for sitting on four city boards — the Community Housing Authority, Surplus Property Authority, Public Financing Authority and Solid Waste and Recycling Authority — that rarely met.
Defense attorneys maintained their clients were wrongly accused, arguing they worked diligently for the city and earned their salaries.
All six defendants were acquitted of charges involving payment for service as a member of the city’s Public Financing Authority.
Hernandez, Jacobo, Mirabal, Bello and Cole were each convicted of charges involving payment for their service on the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, but jurors deadlocked on 10 charges involving payment for their work on the city’s Community Housing Authority and the Surplus Property Authority.
Hernandez, 65, Jacobo, 55, and Mirabal, 63, were each charged with 20 counts of misappropriating public funds between January 2006 and July 2010; Bello, 54, was charged with 16 counts of misappropriation between January 2006 and December 2009; Artiga, 52, was charged with 12 counts of misappropriation between January 2008 and July 2010; and Cole, 63, was charged with eight counts of misappropriation between January 2006 and December 2007.
Former City Manager Robert Rizzo, 59, who is accused of being the mastermind of the alleged corruption scheme, is awaiting trial separately, along with former assistant Angela Spaccia, 54, on corruption-related charges.
During the lengthy deliberations, the jury occasionally requested readback of testimony, most recently last week when it asked to re-hear testimony from Jacobo about her conversation with Rizzo “about becoming full- time and pay and any testimony of the date of said conversation.”
Jacobo testified last month that Rizzo called her to his office and told her that she would be able to work full-time and that she would be getting paid a full-time salary.
“I asked him if that was possible,” Jacobo told the jury last month, noting that Rizzo responded affirmatively and that City Attorney Ed Lee nodded his head.
“My feeling was if the city attorney said it was O.K. to do so, it must be legal,” she testified.
The jury also asked for readback of any testimony about Hernandez’s ability to read and write in English.
The judge told jurors that there were representations made during opening statements about Hernandez’s educational background, but warned them “what the attorneys say is not evidence.”