LOS ANGELES, Calif.–Five former Bell city officials were convicted today of misappropriating public funds by accepting exorbitant salaries while representing the small municipality, but jurors acquitted them of some charges and exonerated one former councilman altogether.
Former Mayor Oscar Hernandez and former council members Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal were each convicted of five counts of misappropriation of public funds and acquitted of five others. Former Councilman George Cole was convicted of two counts and acquitted of two others, while former Councilman Victor Bello was convicted of four counts and acquitted of four others.
Former Councilman Luis Artiga was the only defendant to be completely exonerated, with jurors acquitting him of all 12 counts against him. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy told Artiga, who cried as the verdicts were announced, that he was free to go.
“First and foremost, I want to thank my Lord and savior Jesus for setting me free of these false accusations,” he said outside the courtroom.
The seven-woman, five-man jury was unable to reach verdicts on the remaining counts against the five other defendants, with the panel’s foreman telling Kennedy the jury was split 9-3 on each count–without revealing whether the jury was leaning toward conviction or acquittal.
Four of the jurors indicated, however, that the deadlock might be resolved with some further instructions from the judge. Kennedy told the panel to break for lunch and come back this afternoon and submit specific questions that might help the jury reach verdicts.
The jury has been deliberating for about two weeks.
Prosecutors said the officials misappropriated public funds by collecting exorbitant salaries for sitting on four city boards–the Community Housing Authority, Surplus Property Authority, Public Financing Authority and Solid Waste and Recycling Authority–that rarely met.
Defense attorneys maintained their clients were wrongly accused, arguing they worked diligently for the city and earned their salaries. Most of the counts on which the defendants were acquitted appeared to involve the Public Financing Authority.
An attorney for Bello said after court adjourned around midday that it was unclear how much prison time the convicted officials could face, but he said they could simply be placed on probation.
Jurors initially got the case Feb. 22, but a juror was replaced Feb. 28–with the judge ordering the panel to begin its deliberations anew–after an alternate juror replaced a panelist who acknowledged she had done research on the Internet and talked to her daughter about what she called “the abuse” she suffered from other jurors.
Hernandez, 65, Jacobo, 55, and Mirabal, 63, were each charged with 20 counts of misappropriating public funds between January 2006 and July 2010; Bello, 54, was charged with 16 counts of misappropriation between January 2006 and December 2009; Artiga, 52, was charged with 12 counts of misappropriation between January 2008 and July 2010; and Cole, 63, was charged with eight counts of misappropriation between January 2006 and December 2007.
Former City Manager Robert Rizzo, who is accused of being the mastermind of the alleged corruption scheme, is awaiting trial separately, along with former assistant Angela Spaccia, on corruption-related charges.
During the lengthy deliberations, the jury occasionally requested readback of testimony, most recently last week when it asked to re-hear testimony from Jacobo about her conversation with Rizzo “about becoming full-time and pay and any testimony of the date of said conversation.”
Jacobo testified last month that Rizzo called her to his office and told her that she would be able to work full-time and that she would be getting paid a full-time salary.
“I asked him if that was possible,” Jacobo told the jury last month, noting that Rizzo responded affirmatively and that City Attorney Ed Lee nodded his head.
“My feeling was if the city attorney said it was O.K. to do so, it must be legal,” she testified.
The jury also asked for readback of any testimony about Hernandez’s ability to read and write in English.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy told jurors that there were representations made during opening statements about Hernandez’s educational background, but warned them “what the attorneys say is not evidence.”
The panel also asked to re-hear City Clerk Rebecca Valdez’s testimony about documents she had given Hernandez to sign.