Mistrial declared in California corruption case

Last Updated: Fri, Mar 22, 2013 02:15 hrs

Saying she feared "all hell" had broken loose among jurors, a judge declared a mistrial Thursday on dozens of remaining counts against five former elected officials who had been convicted the day before of looting a working-class Los Angeles suburb.

Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy took the action after the 12-member panel struggled to decide 42 counts against the former mayor and four former members of the Bell City Council.

On Wednesday, the panel convicted the five of a total of 21 counts of misappropriating public funds and acquitted them on 21 other counts. A sixth former official was acquitted of all charges.

The convictions were the first to come after revelations more than a year ago that Bell's leadership had illegally raised taxes, business license fees and other sources of income to pay huge salaries to the city manager, police chief, City Council members and others.

Things quickly went downhill Thursday after the judge asked jurors to try to reach verdicts on dozens more counts of misappropriating public funds. The panel was deadlocked 9-3 in favor of convicting them.

One juror sent a note Thursday that read, "Your honor, I respectfully ask if you could please remind the jury to remain respectful and to not make false accusations or insults to one another."

Another indicated the group had reached a dead-end when it came to most of the remaining 42 counts.

"It seems to me all hell has broken loose," Kennedy told attorneys after receiving the notes.

She then called the jurors back to court and asked them to try one more time.

After one more short session, they said they could not agree and the judge declared the mistrial.

Jurors said they did not want to speak to the news media or attorneys and asked to be escorted privately from the courthouse. Prosecutors also declined to comment.

Earlier in the day, a juror had sent the judge a note expressing misgivings about the previous day's guilty verdicts, but Kennedy ruled that decision was final and would not be revisited.

"The chips are going to fall where they fall," she said.

She scheduled a hearing April 23 to determine whether the deadlocked counts will be retried. A sentencing hearing on the guilty verdicts was not immediately set.

Defense attorneys said they planned to file a motion for a new trial based on possible juror misconduct.

"I think our clients were vilified in the court of public opinion. The call for their guilt has been ringing out," said Alex Kessel, former Councilman George Mirabal's attorney.

He added that jurors may have felt that public pressure to convict and, if they did, the law allows the court to reconsider their verdict.

The case involving the modest 2 1/2-square-mile city has become a national symbol of political greed. Authorities allege a salary-inflating scheme masterminded by former City Manager Robert Rizzo enriched him, the council members and other top city officials. Rizzo and his former assistant, Angela Spaccia, are scheduled to face trial later this year on similar charges.

The city of Bell has about 36,000 residents, with one in four people living below the poverty line.

As its manager, Rizzo had an annual compensation package of about $1.5 million. His salary alone was about $800,000 a year or twice that of the president of the United States. The six former City Council members were each paid about $100,000 a year.

Mirabal, Jacobo and former Mayor Oscar Hernandez were convicted Wednesday of five counts each of misappropriating public funds. Former Councilman Victor Bello was convicted of four counts and former Councilman George Cole of two.

Former Councilman Luis Artiga was acquitted of all 12 counts filed against him.

The convictions were all related to the money the five were paid for their service on Bell's Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, an entity prosecutors said was a sham agency created only to pay them money. Records show the authority met only one time between 2006 and 2010 and there was no evidence any waste was ever collected or recycled.

They were acquitted of charges related to their service on the city's Public Finance Authority, which authorities said was another sham agency. Jurors deadlocked on verdicts relating to their service on two other boards that prosecutors said served no purpose but to pay them more money.

"There may be horse-trading to give up one verdict to get another," Kessel, noting the split verdicts, told the judge.

Kennedy responded that pressure is placed on jurors in all cases.

"That is not tantamount to misconduct," she said.

Deliberations were difficult from the beginning.

Following the three-week trial, deliberations began Feb. 22 and had gone on for only four days when one juror was replaced for misconduct and the panel was ordered to start over. The new group was in its 20th day of deliberations Thursday when things fell apart.

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. They and their lawyers blamed Rizzo for creating the fiscal mess in Bell.

"We were never part-time employees of the city," Mirabal said outside court Friday.

The other defendants declined to comment.


AP Special Correspondent Linda Deutsch contributed to this story.

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