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Multiple guilty verdicts in Bell, Calif., corruption trial; one former councilman cleared

From top left, Luis Artiga, Victor Bello, George Cole; from bottom left, Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal, and Oscar Hernandez.
From top left, Luis Artiga, Victor Bello, George Cole; from bottom left, Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal, and Oscar Hernandez.L.A. County Sheriff's Dept. via AP

A jury reached mixed verdicts in the trial of the so-called "Bell 6," finding former City Council members guilty of several counts of misappropriation of public funds in a scandal that left a small city southeast of downtown Los Angeles nearly bankrupt.

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In a case that grabbed headlines nationwide, five former Bell City Council members accused of padding their paychecks were found guilty on half of the counts they each faced, while the jury was unable to come to unanimous agreement on other counts.

Former Councilman Luis Artiga was found not guilty on all 12 counts he faced. As the clerk read the verdicts, Artiga rocked back and forth in his chair, crying. A court official handed him a box of tissues.

The reading of the verdicts began shortly after 11:30 a.m. Wednesday at the criminal courts building in downtown LA on the 18th day of jury deliberations. When the proceeding was complete, about an hour later, the judge had instructed the jury to continue its deliberations on the counts for which it reached no conclusion.

"I know you probably thought this was going to be the end," LA Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy said. "But I'm sorry to say we're going to have to proceed a little bit further."

She had asked attendees in the courtroom to not react audibly as the verdicts were being read.

The city's former mayor, vice mayor and four former City Council members were charged in a 20-count felony complaint with misuse of public funds. They looted city coffers, inflating their salaries and paying themselves for sitting on commissions that rarely met, the prosecutor argued.

City Manager Robert Rizzo, the alleged mastermind of a scheme that former Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley said cost Bell nearly $6 million, is being prosecuted separately, as is his then-assistant.

During the trial, prosecutors said Bell had been upended by a "culture of corruption."

Related: Criminal complaint against "Bell 6"

The jury had the following conclusions Wednesday: 

  • Ex-mayor Oscar Hernandez: guilty on five counts; not guilty on five counts. No verdict on 10 counts.
  • Former Councilwoman Teresa Jacobo: guilty on five counts; not guilty on five counts. No verdict on 10 counts.
  • Former Councilman George Mirabal: guilty on five counts; not guilty on five counts. No verdict on 10 counts.
  • Former Councilman Victor Bello: guilty on four counts; not guilty on four counts. No verdict on eight counts.
  • Former Councilman George Cole: guilty of two counts; not guilty on two counts. No verdict on four counts.

The guilty verdicts were associated with work done for the city's solid waste and recycling authority. The five defendants were acquitted on charges associated with Bell's public housing authority.

The Bell Association to Stop the Abuse released a statement as the verdicts were being read that stated in part: "This verdict is long awaited and further vindicates the community’s efforts to move out of the shadow of Rizzo corrupt regime. The jury’s verdict is a clear step in helping the Bell community to heal."

The organization -- which calls itself BASTA, meaning "enough" in Spanish -- asked the judge to issue stern sentences for the defendants.

Related: Bell activists "relieved" after multiple guilty verdicts

During 18 days of deliberations after a juror was replaced, the seven-woman, five-man jury had repeatedly asked for the reading back of testimony and had sent multiple questions to the judge.

The jury's decision comes after the 2010 revelation of comparatively exorbitant salaries paid to Bell city officials brought national attention to the working-class city. 

The six former elected city officials are accused of paying themselves nearly $100,000 salaries that should have been about $8,000 per year.

Their actions, along with the $1.5 million compensation package for Rizzo, nearly bankrupted the high-poverty city with a population of about 40,000. Several Bell residents attended much of the trial, which began Jan. 24. Jury deliberations started Feb. 22.

Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Edward Miller had told the jury that the Bell 6 had "dreamed up" the salary scheme "solely for the purpose of stealing money from the people of Bell."

Defense attorneys had pointed the finger at Rizzo, who faces trial alongside his assistant Angela Spaccia. Lawyers for the Bell 6 had said Rizzo had duped their clients.

'Buried their heads in the sand'

Miller denied that.

"We know they buried their heads in the sand, but kept their hands out," Miller said during closing arguments.

The prosecutor had argued that -- to get around a City Council salary cap -- the city increased the amount paid to the defendants for sitting on four municipal boards that held few meetings and did little work. Miller called the boards "shams" that sometimes met only to approve members' own pay raises.

One authority, ostensibly focused on solid waste and recycling, was never even officially established or hired any staff apart from council members, Miller said evidence showed.

But defense attorneys said the six former council members worked many hours for their pay. They claimed the officials relied on Bell's city attorney and an independent auditor to establish salary figures.

Hernandez, 65, Jacobo, 55, and Mirabal, 63, were each charged with 20 counts of misappropriating public funds for over a 4 1/2-year period ending in 2010.

Bello, 54, was charged with 16 counts of misappropriation between 2006 and 2009, while Artiga, 52, was charged with 12 counts of misappropriation between 2008 and 2010.

Cole, 63, was charged with eight counts of misappropriation over a two-year period ending in 2007.

The trial had a hiccup on Feb. 28 when a juror was dismissed for misconduct several days after the case was handed to the jury. Juror No. 3 had said she felt abused by other jurors and did online research about jury coercion.

LA Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy's dismissal of the tearful juror came after a jury note had said the group was at an impasse. An alternate juror was put on the panel and Kennedy ordered the jury to begin deliberations anew.

Jurors on March 15 had asked to re-hear testimony about Jacobo's conversation with Rizzo in which she said he told her that she would be able to work full-time and would get 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 OK to do so, it must be legal," she testified.

The jury also asked for a readback of testimony about Hernandez's ability to read and write in English. The judge warned jurors, in reference to opening statements about Hernandez's education level, that "what the attorneys say is not evidence."