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Ex-Bell officials plead no contest in fraud case
Question of the Day
LOS ANGELES (AP) - Five former elected officials pleaded no contest Wednesday to helping loot the city of Bell out of millions of dollars in a corruption scandal that gained national attention as it drove the working-class Los Angeles suburb to the brink of bankruptcy.
The five, who include the city’s former mayor, each pleaded no contest to two counts of misappropriation of public funds.
Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy scheduled separate sentencing hearings for them beginning in June.
Under terms of a plea agreement, the five face sentences ranging from probation to four years in prison. They are barred from seeking public office again and will be ordered to make restitution.
The amount they must pay is still to be determined, but prosecutors and city officials estimate it will add up to about $1 million.
The five were convicted of other, similar charges following a jury trial last year, but jurors couldn’t reach a verdict on some counts. Wednesday’s pleas resolve those.
Prosecutors said former Mayor Oscar Hernandez and former council members George Cole, Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal and Victor Bello sat on several sham boards and commissions that existed only to inflate their salaries, which were about $100,000 a year when they were arrested.
Their salaries were only one part of a larger scandal that auditors say cost the city more than $5.5 million by the time it was uncovered.
An audit by the state controller’s office found Bell illegally raised property taxes, business-license fees and other sources of revenue to pay not only the council members’ salaries but also those of former City Manager Robert Rizzo, Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia and other top officials.
During their trial last year, the council members and their attorneys accused Rizzo of being the scandal’s mastermind.
Rizzo, who had an annual salary and benefits package of $1.5 million when the city fired him in 2010, has pleaded no contest to 69 counts of fraud, misappropriation of public funds and other charges. He is scheduled to be sentenced next week.
Spaccia, who was making $564,000 a year, was convicted in December of conspiracy, misappropriating public funds, falsification of government records and other charges. She is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday.
The breadth of the scandal, which former Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley once described as “corruption on steroids,” shocked both the nation and the city of Bell.
Nearly half of Bell’s 36,000 residents are immigrants, and more than a quarter live below the poverty line.
Thousands of residents organized a recall campaign after learning of the salaries and subsequently voted all of the council members out of office.
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