Five out of the six defendants in the Bell, Calif., corruption trial have been found guilty of multiple counts of misappropriation of public funds.
Verdicts began coming down late this morning when former Mayor Oscar Hernandez was convicted on five counts of corruption in a Los Angeles Superior Court.
Hernandez and five other former Bell politicians are on trial over a long history of mismanagement, theft of public funds and corruption in the small Los Angeles County town. Hernandez was also acquitted on several other counts, and a sixth defendant, former city councilman Luis Artiga, was cleared of all charges.
Bell became a symbol of corrupt government in southeast L.A. County after a 2010 Los Angeles Times investigation revealed that former city manager Robert Rizzo was receiving a compensation package worth about $1.5 million per year. The city remains insolvent and deeply in debt, and residents say it will take many years to unwind the effects of the old regime’s misbehavior.
“The fact is that they’ve left a bad, bad feeling here,” Nestor Valencia, a currently serving city councilman, told The Daily Caller. “They put us on the worst possible position. It’s atrocious. It’s very sad.”
In addition to Herndandez and Artiga, former council members George Cole, George Mirabal and Victor Bello, along with former Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo, were charged with more than 100 crimes. All the defendants except Artiga had also served as mayor of the town. Rizzo and his assistant Angela Spaccia will go on trial later this year in relation to a scheme to take more than $5.5 million from the city treasury.
The massively overweight Rizzo became a popular figure of vituperation around the country, and other defendants have been eager to place the blame on him. Hernandez’ lawyer argued that the former mayor, who never finished elementary school, was illiterate and too uneducated to understand that his $100,000 annual part-time salary was too large to be legal.
The trial of Hernandez and his co-defendants has also dragged on over claims of juror harassment and tampering that culminated in the dismissal of one juror earlier this month.
Valencia, a longtime Bell gadfly who won a seat on the city council after the city’s entire political class was dismissed, puts these irregularities into a long history of predatory behavior by local politicians.
“I have felt the wrath of [former councilman and mayor] George Cole,” he told TheDC. “I have felt the fraud of [ousted police chief Randy Adams]. We still don’t know whether we can get full justice here in Bell. But we have bills to pay, extremely high taxes, and these guys knew what was going on. The media say nobody was paying attention but that’s b—sh–. People were there. We were at these council meetings all the time. And George Cole suppressed us, intimidated us and harassed us.”
Valencia also expressed disappointment at Artiga’s acquittal. “You don’t take a $100,000 job and say, ‘I don’t know what’s going on,’” he said.