A scandal-ridden Los Angeles suburb was turned upside down by officials who felt they were above the law and collected paychecks for jobs that didn't exist, a prosecutor said Wednesday during closing arguments in a massive corruption case.
The city of Bell was nearly driven to bankruptcy by the outrageous actions of six former officials who are facing charges of misappropriating funds, Prosecutor Ed Miller said.
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, Miller said. But in addition to their inflated council salaries of as much as $80,000 a year, the officials appointed each other to commissions that did nothing and often met yearly just to increase their pay, he said.
The most blatant was the creation of the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, which Miller called "a fiction" designed to line the officials' pockets.
"You can't pay yourself for something that doesn't exist," he said.
Miller noted that the council members could have sought to legally amend the city charter "if they wanted pay raises for kissing babies and cutting ribbons." But they never did that because "they just didn't want anyone to know how much they made," he said.
Those on trial are former mayor Oscar Hernandez, 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.
If convicted of various counts of misappropriation of funds, they could face sentences ranging from 11 to 20 years.
Authorities say the defendants stole more than $300,000 during a two-minute meeting in which they voted themselves salary raises for their sham positions. Testimony during the monthlong trial also revealed evidence of falsified salaries and a city clerk who signed minutes for meetings she didn't attend.
In the midst of a national economic meltdown, the council members were drawing salaries three and a half times that of the median income of a resident in the blue collar town, Miller said. He singled out Bello who resigned his post in favor of working at a city funded food bank.
"Every time a recipient looked at him as an angel of mercy they were looking at nothing more than a charlatan, a fake, a phony — a $100,000 a year volunteer," he said. "What a scam."
Later Wednesday, two defense attorneys told jurors their clients were devoted city employees who were never told by the city attorney that what they were doing might be illegal.
"This is different than when you park in the red and you know what you're doing," defense attorney Ronald Kaye said. "You have to know there is something illegal going on."
Kaye, who represents Cole, portrayed his client as a self-made man who retired from his job as a steel worker and dedicated himself to the small working class city he loved. He served on the council for 24 years until he clashed with City Manager Robert Rizzo and declined to be paid in his last year of service.
Kaye said Cole acknowledges only one misstep.
"My client made a terrible mistake by hiring and trusting Robert Rizzo," he said. "But that is not the basis for a criminal conviction."
Attorney Shepard Kopp said Jacobo spent far more hours working for the poor than attending official meetings.
"This was not a part time job as the government would have you believe," he said.
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 determined Bell had illegally raised property taxes, business license fees and other sources of revenue to pay the salaries and ordered the money repaid.
Rizzo and his assistant city manager, Angela Spazzio, face a trial later in the year.