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Originally published January 24, 2013 at 7:27 PM | Page modified January 25, 2013 at 7:48 AM

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Corruption trial of former officials in Bell, Calif., begins

Six former officials of a scandal-ridden Southern Calif. city are called thieves by a prosecutor; their lawyers blame city manager

The Associated Press

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LOS ANGELES – Six former officials of a scandal-ridden Southern California city heard a prosecutor paint them as thieves Thursday. But their lawyers told jurors in their trial that they were tireless workers for the good of the community of Bell.

Defense attorneys said their clients are being wrongly blamed for the misdeeds of a city manager who ripped off the city treasury for millions and a city attorney who never advised them they were giving themselves illegally huge salaries.

Ronald Kaye, who represents former Councilmember George Cole, said Robert Rizzo kept council members in the dark about what was going on as he systematically enriched himself at the expense of citizens.

“When he ripped off this city and these council members, he duped them,” Kay said.

He depicted Cole as a dedicated resident of the blue-collar community who worked for new schools and other benefits. If he was paid $70,000 a year for a part-time job, he said, “He believed that was reasonable.”

A lawyer for the former mayor, Oscar Hernandez, said he had only a sixth-grade education and was illiterate in English when he was tapped by Rizzo to join the council. Attorney Stanley Friedman said his client was tricked by Rizzo into signing documents he couldn’t read, including those that gave council members huge salaries for serving on what prosecutors said were sham city agencies that did nothing.

Lawyers also blamed the city attorney for failing to tell officials their salaries might be illegal. But a prosecutor said the officials knew what they were doing when they allegedly bilked their town treasury of more than $1.3 million.

All six are charged with misappropriation of public funds.

In one instance, the defendants stole more than $300,000 during a two-minute meeting in which they voted themselves salary raises for their sham positions, said Deputy District Attorney Edward Miller.

Legally, he said, the officials could have paid themselves $673 a month for what was a part-time job. The blue-collar suburb of Los Angeles was managed by Rizzo, who stands trial later in the year with his assistant city manager on allegations he misappropriated millions.

Miller said that in addition to their council salaries of upward of $80,000 a year, the officials appointed each other to the commissions that did nothing.

Prosecutors said the city treasury was looted to the tune of $5.5 million and Bell was driven to the brink of bankruptcy.

Besides Hernandez, those on trial are former Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo, and former council members George Mirabal, George Cole, Victor Bello and Luis Artiga. All but one of the defendants served as mayor at some point.

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