By Kate Mather and Ruben Vives, Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES—The long-running Bell corruption scandal drew toward an end Wednesday when five former council members pleaded no contest to criminal charges and agreed to pay restitution to the small, cash-strapped city that could approach $1 million.
The pleas end the prosecution of seven officials accused of bilking the city out of more than $10 million that they used for excessive salaries and perks. At one point, council members were receiving up to $100,000 a year for their part-time work, while the city’s top administrator, Robert Rizzo, pulled in $1.5 million annually in total compensation.
The scandal, which broke nearly four years ago, had sweeping implications on governments across California, prompting legislation that requires salaries to be made public and sparking audits of city spending elsewhere.
One by one Wednesday, Oscar Hernandez, George Cole, Teresa Jacobo, Victor Bello and George Mirabal each agreed to the deal offered by Los Angeles County prosecutors. In exchange for pleading no contest to two counts of misappropriating public funds, each faces a maximum of four years in state prison — though the judge could hand down sentences as lenient as probation.
As part of the deal, each will pay restitution to Bell, which was left on the brink of bankruptcy, largely because of the large salaries paid.
Attorneys for Bell have calculated proposed restitution payments for each council member, ranging from $77,000 to $242,000 based on how much ill-gotten money the official received. L.A. County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy said she would decide later how much each will pay, possibly when the defendants are sentenced this summer.
“I don’t imagine any of you are planning on running for public office again, but you will be precluded from doing so,” Kennedy told them in court.
Most of the defendants said little as they entered their pleas, answering Kennedy’s questions with a simple “yes” or “no.” Only former Mayor Hernandez spoke up, saying he was sorry for the scandal and suggesting he had been misled by others.
“I’d like to apologize to the city of Bell for my ignorance, for not being able to find out how these people did this,” he said.
In Bell, some residents said they hope the officials get the maximum prison sentences.
“The citizens of Bell have been wronged, and they need justice,” said Danny Harber, who served as a council member after the others were recalled. “Apology doesn’t mean anything. They’re only sorry because they got caught.”
Bob Mackin, a longtime resident, said he also wanted the full punishment for those involved.
“I’d be very offended if they got less than that for what they’ve done,” Mackin said. “Everyone in Bell would be offended.”
Bell became a national symbol for public corruption after the city officials were hauled away in cuffs, charged with dozens of public corruption counts and recalled from office. Six council members were charged, but one — pastor Luis Artiga — was acquitted.
During a monthlong trial last year, the former council members vigorously defended themselves, some saying they were duped by the strong-willed Rizzo or misled by city lawyers. All have filed lawsuits against the former city attorney, claiming they were convicted because of bad advice from him.
But the former council members were put in a dilemma when prosecutors offered to spare them a second trial in exchange for their pleas. They already faced potential eight-year prison terms after being convicted of some charges in their first trial.
In accepting the plea Wednesday, council members launched what is likely to be the final leg of the Bell saga.
Rizzo, who pleaded no contest to 69 corruption counts and guilty to federal tax charges last year, is scheduled to be sentenced next week. He faces up to 12 years in prison.
The city’s former second in command, Angela Spaccia, is to be sentenced Thursday and also faces 10 to 12 years behind bars. Rizzo could testify at her sentencing, which would mark his first public comments on the case.
Both are also likely to pay restitution to the city. Prosecutors say the defendants are responsible for nearly $11 million is losses; the city claims the amount is as high as $18 million.
Bell has struggled to recover from the scandal. Although political reform has taken root, city officials say financial concerns remain.
Some residents said that restitution would help, but that they were skeptical the city will ever see it. The former council members all came from humble backgrounds — a grocer, a mortician, a phone-jack installer, a real estate agent and a steelworker.
Bell’s current mayor, Nestor Valencia, said was left unsatisfied by the punishment the town’s former leaders face. “It’s not sufficient, it’s not fair, it’s not justice for the residents,” he said.
Other officials pointed to another problem, what one described as a lingering distrust of the city’s leadership.
“They keep calling us corrupt, and it’s kind of insulting,” said Councilwoman Violeta Alvarez, who rode into office on a reform platform. “I stepped up to the plate to make changes, and I haven’t done anything wrong — neither have my colleagues. We’re turning things around. But people still (don’t) trust us for what happened.”
Photo by Adam Jones via Wikimedia commons