Lawyer: Bell city officials caught in witch hunt

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Al Seib/AFP/Getty Images

Former Bell city employees (left to right) Robert Rizzo, Angela Spaccia, Victor Bello and Oscar Hernandez attend a bail reduction hearing on Sept. 22, 2010 in Los Angeles.

Six current and former officials charged with ripping off millions of dollars from a modest Los Angeles suburb were innocent victims who were wrongly ensnared in what has become an infamous municipal corruption scandal, a defense lawyer told a judge Wednesday.

The officials, including Bell's mayor and vice mayor, were hard-working, honest individuals who had no idea city employees were being paid enormous salaries through contracts prosecutors said were illegal, lawyer Ronald Kaye said.

Kaye was the first of six defense attorneys set to make a closing argument at a preliminary hearing to determine if there is enough evidence to send the officials to trial on fraud charges in the looting of $5.5 million from the city where one in six people live in poverty.

Superior Court Judge Henry Hall was expected to rule after hearing from the other attorneys and a prosecutor.

Kaye indicated that if anyone was responsible for the scandal, it was the city's disgraced former city manager Robert Rizzo.

Authorities say Rizzo paid himself an annual compensation package of $1.5 million through a series of illegal salary contracts. He and his former assistant, Angela Spaccia, who was paid $376,288, face a preliminary hearing next week. Both have pleaded not guilty.

The six current and former officials, meanwhile, each made about $100,000 a year for service on a City Council that meets once a month and other agencies.

Prosecutors claim the agencies did no work and existed only to pay the officials.

Kaye said the outrageous salaries of Rizzo and other Bell employees brought so much media attention to the city that prosecutors felt compelled to bring charges.

"This is an unfair, politically motivated and unjust prosecution and it should stop today," he said.

The six officials had no idea what Rizzo was paying himself or some of the other employees, Kaye told the judge.

Meanwhile, the defendants earned their salaries and could have been voted out of office if voters disagreed with the payments, he said.

The six public officials who are the subject of the preliminary hearing are Mayor Oscar Hernandez, Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo, Councilman George Mirabal, former Mayor George Cole, and former Councilmen Luis Artiga and Victor Bello.

© 2011 The Associated Press.

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