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Closing arguments begin in Bell corruption trial

by AP wires and KPCC | Take Two®

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This combo made with booking photos provided by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department shows from top left, Luis Artiga, Victor Bello, George Cole, and Oscar Hernandez; from bottom left, Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal, Robert Rizzo, and Peir'Angela Spaccia. The eight are charged with taking more than $5.5 million from the working-class suburb of Bell, Calif. in a scandal that triggered nationwide outrage and calls for more transparency in government. (AP Photo/Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department) /AP

Closing arguments began Wednesday for the trial of the six Bell officials charged with corruption.

Oscar Hernandez, the city’s former mayor, and ex-council members Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal, Luis Artiga, George Cole and Victor Bello are accused of misappropriating public money in a scandal that cost the small working class city millions of dollars and nearly bankrupted it. 

Prosecutor Ed Miller said Thursday during his closing argument that the Los Angeles suburb was turned upside down by corrupt city officials who collected paychecks for jobs that didn't exist. 

Legally, the officials could have paid themselves $673 a month for what was a part-time job, since they didn't actually run the city, Miller said. But in addition to their council salaries of as much as $80,000 a year, the officials appointed each other to commissions that did nothing and often met yearly just to increase their pay, he said.

The most blatant was the creation of the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, which Miller called "a fiction" designed to line the officials' pockets. "They gave themselves raises which were not even drafted by a lawyer," he said. "Somebody just made this up out of the blue."

Authorities say the defendants stole more than $300,000 during a two-minute meeting in which they voted themselves salary raises for their sham positions. Testimony during the monthlong trial also revealed evidence of falsified salaries and a city clerk who signed minutes for meetings she didn't attend.

Most of the defendants testified, saying they earned their salaries through long hours of work. 

"They claim they were working for it, they've all described being available 24/7 to constituents and being at various meetings," said L.A. Times reporter Jeff Gottlieb on Take Two. "This is what their claim is. The DA has pointed out that ... some of these boards weren't even authorized to meet, so this is something that the jury is going to have to sort out."

During Cole's testimony, the prosecutor pointed out that the councilman had a chauffeur and car to get around the city, which spans just 2 1/2 miles.

An audit by the state controller's office determined Bell had illegally raised property taxes, business license fees and other sources of revenue to pay the salaries and ordered the money repaid.

Defense attorneys were scheduled to present counter-arguments later Wednesday. City Manager Robert Rizzo and his assistant city manager, Angela Spazzio, face a trial later in the year.

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