Five of 6 ex-Bell council members found guilty in corruption trial

A Los Angeles jury convicted five of six former council members of stealing from the working-class city of Bell in a corruption scandal that became a national synonym for outrageous municipal salaries and rogue governance.

The verdict Wednesday came on the 18th day of deliberations — nearly as long as the trial itself — and left the jury still deadlocked on nearly half the counts. The judge ordered the jury to return to court Thursday, though it remains unclear if the panel will continue to deliberate on the undecided charges.

The day ended on a chaotic note, further evidence that the jury was deeply divided.

Hours after the verdicts were read, one juror told Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy that he had misgivings about the deliberations. But Kennedy rejected a call by the defense to talk to the juror.

PHOTOS: Bell trial verdicts

"That's done. We're not going to reopen verdicts that have been reached," she said.

The verdicts were decidedly mixed, with the jury returning guilty verdicts and acquittals in even measure. One councilman, a pastor in the small city, was acquitted on all charges. He offered a prayer as the verdicts rolled in.

Former Bell City Administrator Robert Rizzo, who many believe was the mastermind of the corruption, and his assistant, Angela Spaccia, will be tried later this year.

Prosecutors charged the officials with misappropriating public funds by exceeding pay limits established in state law and the city's own charter. The prosecution had argued that the six defendants overpaid themselves by sitting on city boards and authorities that did little work and that council members in a city the size of Bell can only legally earn an annual salary of $8,076.

Defendants were acquitted on charges related to their pay from the Public Finance Authority but were convicted for money they received for sitting on the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority. That board was established in 2005 when the city already had an outside contractor for trash services. Prosecutors said the board rarely met and called it a "sham" to pad leaders' salaries.

The only defendant to win full acquittal was Luis Artiga, who faced 12 counts related to serving on phantom city boards between 2008 and 2010.

His attorney had stressed that Artiga was not appointed to the City Council until 2008, long after other members had voted to boost salaries.

Artiga, 52, wept and looked heavenward as the "not guilty" counts were read.

The judge said "Good health to you" and released Artiga, who had a reputation as the most affable and talkative of the defendants. Afterward, he thanked Jesus for delivering him from "these false allegations." He added: "I had said from the beginning that the truth will set me free and we know that Jesus said, 'I am the Truth and the Life.'"

Convicted on multiple felony counts were former council members Oscar Hernandez, 65, who ran a small grocery store; Victor Bello, 54, a former phone jack installer; George Cole, 63, a former steelworker; Teresa Jacobo, 60, who sold real estate; and George Mirabal, 65, who ran a funeral home.

It remained unclear what type of punishment the five will receive. Attorneys estimated the convicted defendants could face anything from probation to jail time of up to eight years.

A key issue is whether the jury reached verdicts on special so-called "taking" allegations brought by prosecutors. If convicted on those counts, the officials would be more likely to face prison terms.

Defendants were emotional, some teary-eyed, as they left the courtroom with their families, unsure of their final fates.

Prosecutors alleged the defendants drew pay for serving on four boards, boosting their salaries to nearly $100,000 a year, among the highest in the state for part-time council members. The defendants were accused of drawing more than $1.3 million of their salaries from the boards.

Defense attorneys maintained that their clients labored tirelessly for the community on nights and weekends and could receive additional compensation for work outside meetings.