Six former officials of the scandal-ridden city of Bell go on trial this week in a massive corruption case that nearly bankrupted the Los Angeles suburb.
The former mayor and vice mayor and four former City Council members are charged with misappropriation of public funds in a 20-count felony complaint.
Prosecutors accuse the six of looting the city's treasury in order to pay themselves exorbitant salaries. The complaint says sham commissions were created to enrich the defendants.
Two major figures in the scam are not part of this trial. Former City Manager Robert Rizzo and Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia are scheduled to be tried separately. They have been accused of making millions while hiking taxes and fees for residents in the modest, blue-collar suburb where many live in poverty.
Jury selection begins Tuesday and the trial is scheduled to last seven weeks. Key witnesses are expected to be former city employees and officials who discovered the shady dealings and were granted immunity from prosecution for their testimony.
A judge who presided at a preliminary hearing for the officials concluded they had shirked their responsibilities and sold out their constituents for financial gain.
"These people were elected to be the voice of the people, to be a safeguard," said Superior Court Judge Henry Hall, who ordered them held for trial. "And they basically sold that off."
Defense attorneys had argued that the council members earned their salaries, working full time on the city's behalf, not only attending monthly council meetings but taking part in community projects that benefited low-income people, the aged and numerous others.
Prosecutors contend that Rizzo had an annual salary and compensation package worth $1.5 million and masterminded a scheme to loot the city of Bell of more than $6 million. His assistant city manager, Spaccia, was paid $376,288 a year
Council members drew salaries of about $100,000 a year, which Hall said was about 20 times more than they were entitled to make.
The six defendants are expected to argue they worked hard for the city and were unaware of Rizzo's financial manipulations.
Those set to go on trial Tuesday are former Mayor Oscar Hernandez, former vice mayor Teresa Jacobo and former council members George Mirabal, George Cole, Victor Bello and Luis Artiga.
Testimony at the trial is expected to focus on the creation of sham boards and commissions such as the city's Surplus Property Authority, which met a handful of times between 2005 and 2010 and never for more than a minute or two. Hall calculated that resulted in council members being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars an hour for sitting on the authority's board.
He said the city's Solid Waste and Recycling Authority was never legally created and, in any case, met only one time in 2006 — to vote its members a pay raise.
"It was a sham agency," said the judge.
Former District Attorney Steve Cooley, who filed the Bell corruption cases, said more than $5.5 million was taken from the city coffers.
After disclosure of the scandal, Bell residents revolted, turning out in the thousands to protest at City Council meetings and ultimately staging a successful recall election at which they threw out the entire council and elected a slate of new leaders.