Updated: Prosecutors in opening arguments accused six former Bell city councilmembers with stealing more than $1 million from city taxpayers as the officials' corruption trial kicked off Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court.
Luis Artiga, Victor Bello, George Cole, Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal are charged with misappropriation of public funds in a plot to line their own pockets at the expense of citizens.
In his opening statement, prosecutor Edward Miller said he will show how the former Bell leaders stole more than $1 million dollars. He called the Bell city council a “sham governmental body” that voted to pay itself more than a quarter of that money in less than two minutes of meetings.
Miller displayed meeting agendas to show how Bell officials drew huge salaries from the boards they loosely governed — such as the Community Housing Authority, the Surplus Housing Authority, the Public Financing Authority and the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority.
The councilmembers would attend extremely short meetings of these boards, said Miller. Referring to a period between 2006 and 2007, he said "the total minutes for all of the boards was 34 minutes. In other words,...the evidence will show that they worked less minutes than my opening statement will take this morning."
The former mayor and council members were legally entitled to be paid $673 monthly, or just over $8,000 a year, for what was designed to be a part-time job with a city of about 35,000 residents, Miller said. They were making more than $100,000 annually, not including retirement benefits, "when we caught up with them," he said.
The defendants have pleaded not guilty. In their opening statements, the lawyers for Cole and Mirabal said their clients believed their salaries were legal and reasonable.
"This was not a money grab," said Cole's lawyer Ronald Kaye, who argued that Bell had a city attorney and independent auditor who should have let councilmembers know if there was anything illegal going on regarding their salaries.
Responding to prosecutor Miller's allegation that the defendants only worked part time, Kaye said, “George Cole worked full time for the people of the city of Bell.”
Mirabal's lawyer Alex Kessel said his client is only on trial because of "guilt by association."
Kaye sought to lay the blame for any wrongdoing at the feet of former City Manager Robert Rizzo. He said Cole trusted and relied on Rizzo, and that Rizzo duped the councilmembers. After the scandal broke, Cole tried to get answers from Rizzo, but Rizzo instructed his staff not to answer councilmembers' questions, said Kaye. He said Rizzo kept Cole and the other defendants in a "cocoon."
Rizzo will stand trial on separate corruption charges after the Bell Six.
A jury was seated Wednesday after some prospects disclosed strong bias against the defendants. Those who said they were disgusted by reports of the defendants' greed were dismissed.
The city was driven to the brink of bankruptcy with some $5.5 million allegedly taken from city coffers.