Los Angeles – Five former Bell city council members were convicted of stealing taxpayer dollars from a struggling Los Angeles suburb that became a national symbol of political greed.
The defendants, their lawyers and even some prosecution witnesses said the true mastermind who put in place the scheme that bilked the city of Bell out of $5.5 million was disgraced former City Manager Robert Rizzo – who was not even in court. He is expected to face his own trial on similar charges later this year.
In the end, legal experts said, making Rizzo the villain may have had some impact on Wednesday's mixed verdict in which Bell's former mayor and four former City Council members were convicted of 21 counts of misappropriating public funds but found not guilty of 21 other counts. A sixth former council member was acquitted of all charges.
Jurors, meanwhile, deadlocked on about half of the more than 80 counts prosecutors filed. They were to continue deliberations on those charges Thursday.
"It's a lot easier to point the finger at Rizzo who received the most ill-gotten gains," said Rebecca Lonergan, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at the University of Southern California. "It gave them a bigger bad guy who wasn't sitting next to them."
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Mark Werksman, a defense attorney not involved in the case, agreed.
"People lower on the rung always have the opportunity to deflect blame to try and attribute it to people higher up," he said. "That seems to be what happened here."
Still, Werksman said the mixed verdict was clearly a victory for prosecutors.
"There is no way to characterize this as anything but a serious loss for the defendants," he said.
The convictions were the first to come after revelations more than a year ago that Bell's leadership 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.
City records revealed that Rizzo had an annual salary and compensation package worth $1.5 million, making him one of the highest paid administrators in the country.
His salary alone was about $800,000 a year — double that of the president of the United States.
The six former City Council members were each paid about $100,000 a year.
Former Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez and former Council members Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal were each convicted of five counts of misappropriating public funds. Former Councilman Victor Bello was convicted of four counts and former Councilman George Cole of two.
Prosecutors declined to say what sentences they may face until the other charges are resolved.
Former Councilman Luis Artiga was acquitted of all charges. The pastor of Bell Community Church broke down in tears and pointed heavenward as the not guilty verdicts were read.
"I said, 'Thank you, Lord,'" a beaming Artiga, surrounded by his wife and four children, said outside court. "I never lost faith. I knew it, I just knew it."
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. Artiga was not on the City Council when it was created.
Records showed 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 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 Bell was left in.
The city of 36,000 residents, where one in four people live below the poverty line, was threatened with bankruptcy after the state controller ordered that the illegally collected taxes, license fees and other revenue be repaid.
Witnesses at the trial depicted Rizzo as a micro-manager who put all those misdeeds in motion while convincing the city's elected officials they deserved their huge salaries.
He was said to have manipulated council members into signing major financial documents, particularly Hernandez who does not read English and, according to his lawyer, was often unaware of what he was signing.
Jacobo testified that when Rizzo told her that he was increasing her salary enough that she could quit her job selling real estate, she asked the former city attorney if that was legal and he assured her it was.
After the scandal was disclosed, thousands of Bell residents protested at City Council meetings and staged a successful recall election to throw out the entire council and elect new leaders.
Current Mayor Ali Saleh, a leader of the recall, hailed the guilty verdicts on Wednesday but said residents won't be truly satisfied until Rizzo and Spaccia are tried.
"Our community will rest when the legal process has come full circle and justice has been served," he said.
Denisse Rodarte, 31, a longtime Bell resident who was also involved in launching the recall, stood outside Bell City Hall after the verdict holding up a sign. It read, "Rizzo is next."
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.