5 former Bell officials accept plea deal; city will seek millions in restitution (update)

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Update 4:37 p.m.: Current Bell officials are calling for repayment and prison; lawyers will seek probation

Five former Bell city council members already convicted for their roles in the public corruption scandal have accepted a plea agreement to avoid another trial. The deal also effectively cuts the amount of time they faced in prison by at least half.

They now face a maximum of four years behind bars for their part in bilking the city of Bell. They had faced up to eight years or more after their convictions last year on some charges, which involved illegally inflating their paychecks.

The jury failed to reach agreement on other charges. Specifically, that the defendants accepted salaries of close to $100,000 for sitting on boards or commissions that rarely met.

Stanley Friedman, the lawyer for former Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez says it’s a good deal.

“The worst case scenario is that he would be looking at half as much as he could have been sentenced to if he had been acquitted on all other charges,” Friedman said. “In that sense it is a very good deal.”

And the lawyer said he’ll ask the judge for probation at the sentencing hearing, so Hernandez “may wind up with no jail time at all.”

Friedman says he will tell the judge during sentencing that the ex-mayor is a “good soul” who helps the poor and works at food banks. Friedman and other defense lawyers say the former city council members “unwittingly” benefited from the corruption scandal.

“I think the worst thing you can say is they were asleep at the wheel. And they permitted the treasury to be raided,” Friedman said. “But they themselves didn’t raid the treasury.”

The scandal brought the tiny community of Bell to the brink of bankruptcy. Current Bell officials say the crooked ones should pay with money and time behind bars.

Anthony Taylor, a lawyer for the city of Bell, says the five former council members also owe restitution.

“The total for all of the council members is $981,132.37,” Taylor said. “Those have been calculated based on their payroll records to the penny.”

One ex-council member George Cole says he is ready to write a check for his part. But at least one other, Victor Bello, claims to be indigent.

Violeta Alvarez, a current Bell city councilmember, says she wants to see each of them locked up.

“They have to spend some time in jail. So other cities can learn from that,” Alvarez said. “Then this will set up an example.”

Each of the former Bell city council members – George Mirabal, Teresa Jacobo, Bello, Cole and Hernandez – will be sentenced separately in June and July. Prosecutors with the L.A. County District Attorney’s office declined to comment on the case until after all of the defendants are sentenced.

Update 10:55 a.m. Current Bell officials react to plea deals in criminal case against former officials

Current officials at the City of Bell praised Wednesday’s plea deal that resolves the criminal cases against five former city council members.

Five former Bell City Council members who misappropriated public funds through inflated salaries accepted plea deals Wednesday to resolve the remaining corruption charges against them. Earlier, a jury found them guilty them of some charges, but could not reach agreement on the remaining charges.

The deal now resolves the case. Sentencing for each of the five council members will be on different days from the end of June to mid-July, and they each face a sentence of four years in prison. The group is also expected to pay more than $900,000 in restitution.

All told, the scandal that included the former city manager and other employees cost the small city south of Los Angeles at least $12 million, said Anthony Taylor, a lawyer for the city of Bell.

Current Bell city councilwoman Violeta Alvarez, who was at the courthouse Wednesday, said she may ask for more money from the ex-council members.

"We want full restitution,” Alvarez said. “They have to spend some time in jail so other cities can learn from that."

Stanley Friedman is a lawyer for Ex-Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez, one of the five who accepted the plea deal. The attorney called his client a "good soul" who works at the local food bank. Friedman hopes the judge will see that in sentencing.

The prosecutor declined to comment.

—Shirley Jahad

10:11 a.m.: 5 former Bell officials accept plea deal; face maximum 4 years in prison (update)

Five former Bell City Council members who misappropriated public funds through inflated salaries accepted plea deals Wednesday to resolve the remaining corruption charges against them, City News Service reported.

Under the agreement with prosecutors, the defendants will face a maximum of four years behind bars, CNS reported. 

Sentencing for each of the five council members will be on different days from the end of June to mid-July. Prosecutors declined to comment to KPCC after Wednesday's court proceeding

Former Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez and former council members Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal were each convicted on March 20, 2013, of five counts of misappropriation of public funds and acquitted of five others, CNS reported.

Former Councilman George Cole was convicted of two counts and acquitted of two others, while former Councilman Victor Bello was convicted of four counts and acquitted of four others.

Jurors deadlocked on a handful of counts against the five, with the prosecution announcing in May that it intended to retry those charges. The plea deals reached Wednesday resolve those remaining counts, eliminating the need for another trial.

Jurors exonerated former Councilman Luis Artiga of all 12 charges against him.

In their trial, the prosecution alleged that the defendants were paid illegal salaries for sitting on four city boards that rarely met, with their salaries reaching $100,000 in a city that was 2 1/2 square miles and where the median household income was $35,000.

The five former Bell council members — all convicted but facing a retrial on additional corruption-related charges — had until Thursday to decide whether to take a plea bargain that would their cap their potential prison time at four years, the Los Angeles Times reported:

The ex-council members were convicted of boosting their salaries as high as $100,000 a year by being paid to serve on city boards that seldom, if ever, met.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that sentencing would take place on July 14. KPCC regrets the error.

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