A half dozen former officials of a scandal-ridden Southern California city heard a prosecutor paint them as thieves Thursday. But their lawyers told jurors in their trial that they were tireless workers for the good of the community of Bell.
Defense attorneys said their clients are being wrongly blamed for the misdeeds of a city manager who ripped off the city treasury for millions and a city attorney who never advised them they were giving themselves illegally huge salaries.
Ronald Kaye, who represents former council member George Cole, said Robert Rizzo kept council members in the dark about what was going on as he systematically enriched himself at the expense of citizens.
"When he ripped off this city and these council members, he duped them," Kay said.
He depicted Cole as a dedicated resident of the small blue-collar community who worked for new schools and other benefits. If he was paid $70,000 a year for a part-time job, he said, "He believed that was reasonable."
Kaye and other defense attorneys said the council jobs were actually full-time and more.
A lawyer for the former mayor, Oscar Hernandez, said he had only a sixth-grade education and was illiterate in English when he was tapped by Rizzo to join the council. Attorney Stanley Friedman said his client was tricked by Rizzo into signing documents he couldn't read, including those that gave city council members huge salaries for serving on what prosecutors said were sham city agencies that did nothing.
Lawyers also blamed the city attorney for failing to tell officials their salaries might be illegal. But a prosecutor said the officials knew what they were doing when they allegedly bilked their small town treasury of more than $1.3 million.
All six are charged with misappropriation of public funds.
In one instance, the defendants stole more than $300,000 during a two-minute meeting in which they voted themselves salary raises for their sham positions, said Deputy District Attorney Edward Miller.
Running through a list of meetings that lasted a few minutes each, Miller said, "They worked less hours than my opening statement will take this morning."
Legally, he said, the officials could have paid themselves $673 a month for what was a part-time job, since they did not actually run the city. The blue-collar suburb of Los Angeles was managed by Rizzo, who stands trial later in the year with his assistant city manager on allegations he misappropriated millions.
Miller alleged that in addition to their council salaries of upward of $80,000 a year, the officials appointed each other to the commissions that did nothing and often met yearly just to increase their salaries.
The most blatant, he said, was creation of the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, which he called "a fiction" designed to line the officials' pockets.
"They gave themselves raises which were not even drafted by a lawyer. Somebody just made this up out of the blue," Miller said.
Prosecutors said the city treasury was looted to the tune of $5.5 million and the modest city of Bell was driven to the brink of bankruptcy.
Besides Hernandez, those now on trial are former vice mayor Teresa Jacobo, and former council members George Mirabal, George Cole, Victor Bello and Luis Artiga. All but one of the defendants served as mayor at some point.
Miller said the scam thrived because few people every attended City Council meetings to keep watch on their elected leaders. At one meeting, 12 people were in the audience and most were relatives of the council members, he said.
Miller said the alleged wrongdoing was discovered in 2008 when Roger Ramirez, a citizen who attended council meetings regularly, heard that Rizzo was being paid $400,000 a year and council members were being paid $80,000. He asked for an accounting, and despite efforts by Rizzo to avoid the revelations, they became public.
Outraged residents who had seen their taxes and fees go up turned out by the thousands to protest when the scandal broke. They held a successful recall election and threw out the entire council.