5 of 6 former Bell officials found guilty of misappropriation of funds; Attorneys raise questions on jury misconduct

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UPDATE 5:30 p.m.: Attorneys for two Bell officials convicted of misappropriating public funds have raised questions about whether verdicts reached by the jury were truly unanimous. 

The Los Angeles Times reports that the attorneys for former councilman George Cole and mayor Oscar Hernandez questioned two separate notes from members of the jury to Judge Kathleen Kennedy. 

The first, from Juror No. 7, questioned whether unspecified information was presented properly. The other, from Juror No. 10, mentioned that the author felt the deliberations were "getting away from [Kennedy's] instructions."

Both attorneys said the notes raised questions about jury misconduct. Judge Kennedy said she did not interpret the notes that way.

“That's done, we're not going to reopen verdicts that have been reached,” Kennedy said, according to the Times.

Attorney Stanley Friedman, who represented former Bell mayor Oscar Hernandez, said his client will appeal the convictions.

“He’s obviously concerned with the guilty verdicts, appreciates the jury’s time, and is hopeful that there won’t be a special findings in the case that’s much more likely to result in a harsh sentence,” said Friedman.

As the court clerk read the 12 "not guilty" verdicts for Luis Artiga, the former councilman broke down in tears and leaned back in his chair with relief.

"I felt righteous, I felt thankful to God," said Artiga, who's also a part-time pastor in Bell. "I was very thankful and I’m thanking God for giving me an opportunity.”

Artiga said he felt the jury would acquit him. He said he wrote about it in his journal during the trial.

“My last words were, 'Remember the day that God sent you free.' And I signed it and sealed this journal," said Artiga. "It was a journal not of the history of Bell but what happened in my heart.”

Longtime Bell resident Alfred Areyan said the most important aspect of the verdicts is that it sends a message, especially for the city's future leaders.

“Hopefully, people wake up ad see that these tax dollars are very needed in our community - and it’s time that people think before they do,” he said.   

The jury will return to the courtroom Thursday at 9 a.m. It's not yet clear whether they'll be ordered to continue deliberating.

UPDATE 3:32 p.m. Jurors in Los Angeles have convicted five former members of the Bell city council of misappropriating public funds.

The five had accepted exorbitant salaries for serving on various boards and commissions in Bell. The felony convictions could carry jail time.  

It took jurors 18 days to reach verdicts in the long-running corruption case, and they’re not done yet. They deadlocked on some counts, but will likely keep deliberating on those after the judge answers questions they’ve submitted.

The jury was ordered to return Thursday at 9 a.m., the Los Angeles Times reports. They were sent home after lunch Wednesday, and whether they will be forced to resume deliberating remains to be seen, according to the Times.

Former Bell council members Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal were each convicted of five felony counts and acquitted of five others. Victor Bello, who had maintained that he was a "whistleblower" about Bell corruption, was convicted of four counts. George Cole was found guilty of two counts.

Jurors acquitted former councilman Luis Artiga of the 12 counts against him. The former pastor broke down in tears when the verdict was read.

Artiga told KPCC outside the courtroom that he's going to continue his work as a pastor in Bell, but no more politics. He said he's sorry he became a councilman.

The case was so involved that it took the court clerk about a half hour to read the verdicts.

— Corey Moore with Mike Roe

Previously: Jurors reached a verdict Wednesday in the trial of former Bell mayor Oscar Hernandez and former council members Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal, Luis Artiga, George Cole and Victor Bello, finding Hernandez, Jacobo, Mirabal, Cole and Bello guilty of misappropriation of funds, though not on all counts. Luis Artiga was the only council member found not guilty on all counts, crying as the verdict was read.

The jury was deadlocked on 10 counts, leading the judge to send the jury back to deliberate further on those counts after several jurors said that they felt more instruction from the court could help them reach a verdict.

Judge Kathleen Kennedy asked the jury foreman if the panel had exhausted efforts to decide the deadlocked counts, and he said that was correct, but the judge nonetheless ordered further deliberations in an unusual development.

The former officials of the small Los Angeles County city are charged with misappropriation of public funds by giving themselves enormous salaries.

Prosecutors argued the former city officials misappropriated taxpayer money by drawing six figure salaries for serving on committees that barely did any work. But the defense said they worked hard and their salaries were legal.

Prosecutors brought an extensive case involving about 100 counts. The five Bell officials found guilty face up to 20 years in prison.

The current jury has been deliberating since Feb. 28, when one member of the original panel was replaced and the judge told the reconstituted group to start talks anew. The original panel was in its fifth day of talks when the juror was replaced for violating rules.

“While today’s guilty ruling for five of the Bell Six helps bring some closure and justice to our community, there are still trial cases which remain pending — the trials of those remaining assailants that in my view plundered our City’s resources and shackled Bell’s hardworking families with an overwhelming tax burden,” Bell City Mayor Ali Saleh said in a press release.

Former Bell mayor George Cole, onetime chief executive of the Steelworkers Oldtimers Foundation, was something of a local powerbroker. Cole’s Huntington Park-based charity had millions of dollars worth of contracts with area cities for meal delivery and transportation programs for seniors and the disabled. The charity took in more than $7 million in 2010, according to its nonprofit federal tax exempt filing.

During the trial, he testified he voted in 2008 to approve substantial raises for the City Council members out of fear that a “vindictive” City Manager Robert Rizzo would undermine his community improvement efforts. He testified he initially wanted larger salaries for the council members to increase the diversity of those who could serve in the largely working class city of Bell. But the amounts grew to a point that made him uncomfortable, and he tried to give his back to the city, he testified.

Cole left the Bell City Council abruptly in 2008 after 24 years as councilmember and taking turns serving as mayor.

In 2010 the Los Angeles Times reported that the organization claimed in state documents that it received no government funding, when in fact, it had received $2.6 million in contracts from municipalities including Bell, Norwalk, Fontana and Huntington Park over a 3-year period ending in mid-2009.

He left leadership of the Oldtimers Foundation in 2010 and an interim CEO was appointed after questions arose about the organization failing to disclose its contracts with local cities in documents filed with the state.

KPCC will cover the verdict in full once it is read.

Check back here for more details when they're available.

With contributions from Eric Zassenhaus

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