Judge declares mistrial on remaining counts in Bell government corruption case

Deputy Dist. Atty. Edward Miller presents closing arguments in the trial of former Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez and former council members Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal, Luis Artiga, George Cole and Victor Bello, who were charged with misappropriation of public funds.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Edward Miller presents closing arguments in the trial of former Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez and former council members Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal, Luis Artiga, George Cole and Victor Bello, who were charged with misappropriation of public funds.
Irfan Khan/AFP/Getty Images

One day after a Los Angeles jury delivered guilty verdicts in the Bell corruption case, the judge declared a mistrial on the counts where jurors couldn't make a decision.

Those counts had to do with salaries paid to Bell city council members who'd also served on the city's Solid Waste Authority board. Jurors had come back to court to talk some more — and maybe reach agreement.

But after getting two notes from the jury, L.A. Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy said it seemed "all hell has broken loose in the deliberation room."

The notes indicated a lot of arguing on the 18th day of deliberations. All 12 jurors agreed more talking wouldn't break the deadlock, so Judge Kennedy declared a mistrial on the remaining counts.

Attorney Ron Kaye — who represents defendant George Cole — asked to reopen evidence on those counts, but got an emphatic "no" from the judge.

Outside the courtroom, Kaye said the jury's inability to reach verdicts about counts linked to Bell's Surplus Property Authority board raises questions about the guilty verdicts the panel reached regarding the city's Solid Waste Authority board. 

"Because there was ultimately a verdict for the Solid Waste Authority, and that people have strenuously stated that they felt pressured into it, I think it's an area for inquiry, because we want an honest verdict," Kaye said.

The day before, when the jury handed down a series of guilty verdicts against five Bell officials, the foreman said the panel was split 9-to-3 on the remaining counts, nine jurors favoring conviction.

Kaye wants to talk to the jury to find out what went on as they talked about the evidence and possible verdicts.

“So if there was undue influence, if there was unfair pressure, if there were threats, something to that effect, or if there was horsetrading and not really evaluating the evidence, we would hope that we would be able to speak to such jurors," said Kaye. "It helps no one in our society to have a jury come back with a verdict reflecting pressure and undue influence. It helps nobody.”

After the mistrial ruling, Leo Moriarty, who represents defendant Victor Bello, said he believes there's a legal basis for having the guilty verdicts thrown out.

"That is why we did request, even today in court, before the jury was discharged, that we have an opportunity to reopen with respect to those particular counts where our clients were convicted," Moriarty said. "The court denied it, but we were required to make that request for purposes of any subsequent appeal."

While the defense talks about appeals, prosecutors will discuss whether to seek a retrial on the counts left undecided by jurors.

The ex-Bell officials are free on bail. The judge could sentence the ex-city officials on April 23rd, or set another date at that time.

— Corey Moore

Previously: A judge declared a mistrial Thursday on dozens of remaining counts against five former elected officials accused of misappropriating public funds in a working-class California city.

The move came after jurors who had convicted the Bell officials of 21 criminal counts the day before said they could not reach a verdict on the other allegations.

All five were convicted of various other charges on Wednesday.

Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy declared the mistrial after a day of fruitless deliberations by the panel.

Jurors reached mixed verdicts on Wednesday, convicting the former mayor and four formerBell City Council members of 21 counts of misappropriating public funds and acquitting them of 21 other counts.

The case involving the modest 2½-square-mile Los Angeles suburb has become a national symbol of political greed. Authorities allege a salary-inflating scheme that drove the city to the brink of bankruptcy was masterminded by former City Manager Robert Rizzo, who is expected to go on trial with his former assistant on similar charges later this year.

The city of Bell has about 36,000 residents, with one in four people living below the poverty line.

Before declaring the mistrial, Kennedy had ruled the 21 previous verdicts would stand, even though she received a note from a juror who was having second thoughts.

"The chips are going to fall where they fall," she said.

Kennedy asked the jury earlier in the day to keep trying to reach verdicts on 42 other counts in deliberations that have now lasted longer than the trial.

The note from the juror, who asked to remain anonymous, referred to a verdict related to one of the municipal boards that prosecutors said was created by the officials to help boost their salaries.

"I have been debating in my own mind that due to the pressure and stress of the deliberation process the jury may have given an improper verdict on the Solid Waste Authority," the note said.

In a separate note sent Wednesday, a different juror, identified as No. 10, said she thought the panel was straying from the judge's instructions.

Defense attorneys argued that the notes might indicate there was misconduct in deliberations.

"There may be horse-trading to give up one verdict to get another," said attorney Alex Kessel, who represents former Councilman George Mirabal.

Kennedy said pressure is placed on juries in all cases.

"That is not tantamount to misconduct," she said.

Defense attorneys also questioned whether Kennedy's jury instructions were prejudicial to their clients.

At one point, attorney Ron Kaye, who represents ex-Councilman George Cole, suggested jurors hear more evidence about the case, drawing an angry rebuke from the judge.

"You are not going to reopen evidence," she said. "That is not provided. No!"

Former Mayor Oscar Hernandez and former City Council members Teresa Jacobo and Mirabal were each convicted of five counts of misappropriating public funds. Former Councilman Victor Bello was convicted of four counts and former Councilman Cole of two.

Prosecutors declined to say what sentences they could face until the other charges are resolved.

Former Councilman Luis Artiga was acquitted of all 12 counts filed against him.

The convictions were the first to come after revelations more than a year ago that Bell'sleadership had illegally raised taxes, business license fees and other sources of income to pay huge salaries to the city manager, police chief, City Council members and others.

The six former City Council members were each paid about $100,000 a year.

Following the three-week trial, deliberations began on Feb. 21 and had gone on for only four days when one juror was replaced for misconduct and the panel was ordered to start over. The new group has been in its 20th day of deliberations on Thursday.

The convictions all related to the defendants being paid for sitting on Bell's Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, an entity they could not prove had been legally established or did any work.

Records show the authority met only one time between 2006 and 2010 and there was no evidence any waste was ever collected or recycled.

Many of the still unresolved charges relate to the council members' work on other agencies that prosecutors also say were created only to help boost their salaries.

The defendants, many of whom took the witness stand during the trial, insisted they earned those salaries by working around the clock to help residents. They and their lawyers blamed Rizzo for creating the fiscal mess in Bell.

This story has been updated and also changed to reflect that a definite sentencing date has not been set.