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Ex-officials convicted in Calif. corruption case

Thursday - 3/21/2013, 3:28am  ET

Former Councilman Luis Artiga, left, celebrates his acquittal, standing with his attorney George Mgdesyan during a news conference after the Bell trial verdicts were read Wednesday March 20, 2013 in Los Angeles. Five former elected officials of the tiny California city of Bell were convicted Wednesday of multiple counts of misappropriation of public funds, and a sixth defendant, Artiga, was cleared entirely. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

JOHN ROGERS
Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Five former city councilors in a small, blue-collar Los Angeles suburb that became a symbol of political greed were convicted Wednesday of stealing taxpayer money by creating a panel that helped boost their part-time pay to nearly $100,000 a year.

One former councilman was acquitted and the other five were found not guilty of several counts each, as jurors returned verdicts on only about half of the more than 80 charges prosecutors had filed. Jurors said they were deadlocked on the other charges, but the judge ordered them to continue deliberations after some members said they thought a verdict could still be reached.

The trial was the first such proceeding following revelations that Bell's leadership had bilked the hardscrabble city of $5.5 million, using the money to pay huge salaries to the city manager, police chief, City Council members and others. The former city manager and his assistant are expected to face trial on similar charges later this year.

Former Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez and onetime City Council members Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal, George Cole and Victor Bello were convicted Wednesday of misappropriating public funds.

Former Councilman Luis Artiga was acquitted of all charges. The pastor of Bell Community Church broke down in tears and pointed heavenward as the not guilty verdicts were read.

"I said, 'Thank you, Lord,'" a beaming Artiga, surrounded by his wife and four children, said outside court. "I never lost faith. I knew it, I just knew it."

After the four-week trial, the other defendants were convicted of illegally taking money for sitting on Bell's Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, an entity they could not prove had been legally established or did any work. Artiga was not on the City Council when it was created.

Records showed it met only one time between 2006 and 2010.

After the verdicts were read, the jury foreman told Judge Kathleen Kennedy the panel was deadlocked 9-3 on the other charges, which involved their paid service on other, similar boards that prosecutors said were created for no purpose other than to inflate their salaries.

When four jurors told her they still believed a verdict on those charges was possible, she ordered them to continue deliberations. They were to meet again Thursday.

At the heart of the case is whether the six officials broke the law by paying themselves annual salaries of up to $100,000 to govern only part-time in the city of 36,000 people where one in four residents live below the poverty line.

An audit by the state controller's office found the city had illegally raised property taxes, business license fees and other sources of revenue to pay the salaries. The office ordered the money repaid, which for a time put Bell in danger of filing for bankruptcy.

The defendants, many of whom took the witness stand during the trial, insisted they earned their salaries by working around the clock to help residents. Their lawyers blamed Bell's disgraced former city manager, Robert Rizzo, for creating the fiscal mess.

City records have revealed that Rizzo had an annual salary and compensation package worth $1.5 million, making him one of the highest paid administrators in the country.

His salary alone was about $800,000 a year -- double that of the president of the United States.

To fund salaries of officials, Rizzo masterminded a scheme to loot Bell's treasury of $5.5 million, prosecutors said.

Witnesses at the trial of the former council members depicted Rizzo as a micro-manager who convinced the city's elected officials that they too deserved huge salaries.

He was said to have manipulated council members into signing major financial documents, particularly Hernandez who does not read English and, according to his lawyer, was often unaware of what he was signing.

After the scandal was disclosed, thousands of Bell residents protested at City Council meetings and staged a successful recall election to throw out the entire council and elect new leaders.

Current Mayor Ali Saleh, a leader of the recall, hailed the guilty verdicts on Wednesday but said residents won't be truly satisfied until Rizzo and Spaccia are tried.

"Our community will rest when the legal process has come full circle and justice has been served," he said.

Denisse Rodarte, 31, a longtime Bell resident who was also involved in launching the recall, stood outside Bell City Hall later Wednesday holding a sign that read "Rizzo is next."

"To finally have a court say they are guilty, it's like 'Yeah, we were right, we've been saying this all along,'" Rodarte said.

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