The unschooled and illiterate former mayor of the scandal-ridden suburban city of Bell had no training that would have alerted him that his huge salary was illegal, his lawyer told a jury in closing arguments Thursday.
Former Mayor Oscar Hernandez didn't have a college or high school degree and didn't even finish elementary school, defense attorney Stanley Friedman said at the corruption trial.
Hernandez is among six former Bell city officials charged with misappropriating funds. He was earning just under $100,000 a year for the part-time job.
Friedman argued that financial advisers hired by the city could have informed Hernandez that salaries being paid to council members were illegal, but no one did that.
"They didn't say, 'Stop in the name of the law. These salaries are illegal,'" he said.
Hernandez, former vice mayor Teresa Jacobo and former council members George Cole, George Mirabal, Victor Bello and Luis Artiga are facing charges of misappropriating funds from the blue collar city near Los Angeles.
In prosecutors' closing arguments on Wednesday, they said the six officials felt they were above the law and collected paychecks for jobs that didn't exist.
Legally, the officials could have paid themselves $673 a month for what was a part-time job, since they didn't actually run the city, Deputy District Attorney Ed Miller said. But in addition to their inflated council salaries, the officials appointed each other to commissions that did nothing and often met yearly just to increase their pay, he said. Some made $100,000 a year.
Attorneys for Jacobo and Cole made their closing arguments Wednesday afternoon, saying their clients were victims of a city attorney who never told them that what they were doing could be illegal.
Friedman echoed that argument on Thursday. He added that Hernandez was known around town for being willing to listen to everyone's problems. Like many other politicians of simple backgrounds, he wasn't required to be scholarly to be mayor, he said.
"We elect people who have a good heart. Someone who can listen to your problems and look you in the eye," Friedman said. "There are a lot of elected officials who may not be the most scholarly. We had a vice president of the United States who didn't know how to spell potato."
Friedman said former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's main qualification was "he portrayed a killer robot in the movies. And (former Minnesota Gov.) Jesse Ventura was a professional wrestler."
George Mgdesyan, representing Artiga, said his client had been on the council less than two years and "didn't know what boards he was getting paid for." Artiga learned the ropes by attending City Council meetings, he said.
"He sees at every meeting how it works. ... He thought this was a full-time job," the attorney said.
In the midst of a national economic meltdown, the council members were drawing salaries 3 1/2 times that of the median income of a Bell resident, Miller said on Wednesday. But defense attorneys said they saw no problem with the compensation.
Attorney Alex Kessel, speaking on behalf of Mirabal, said that on the night his client was arrested he had been out all day and evening doing good works for the city.
"They deserve the money they got," Kessel said. "This isn't stealing from the city. This is hard-earned money earned by hard working people."
After disclosure of the scandal in 2010, Bell residents revolted and turned out in the thousands to protest at City Council meetings. They ultimately staged a successful recall election in 2011, throwing out the entire council and electing a slate of new leaders.
An audit by the state controller's office found that 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.
Miller spoke to the jury again during his rebuttal on Thursday. He referred to the defendants as "a gang of crooks."
"Did you have to be a lawyer to be horrified?" he asked jurors. "This is supposed to raise a red flag in front of you as a reasonable person."
The case was expected to go to the jury Friday after Miller concludes his remarks. The six former officials face sentences ranging from 11 to 20 years in prison.
Former city manager Robert Rizzo and his assistant city manager, Angela Spaccia, face a trial later this year.