Former Bell, Calif., city officials appear for a massive city corruption trial Jan. 23 in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom.(Photo: Francine Orr, AP)
(USA TODAY) -- After deliberating for nearly a month, a jury convicted five former elected officials of corruption Wednesday in Bell, Calif., where prosecutors said they awarded themselves inflated salaries for bogus duties.
A sixth defendant, a minister who was on the City Council, was cleared of all 12 counts against him.
"Thank you, Lord,'' Luis Artiga said outside the courtroom after he was acquitted.
The charges stem from an investigation into wide-scale corruption in the Los Angeles County city of 36,000 people. The Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on the scandal, including disclosure of enormous compensation paid to the city manager, the accused ringleader of the corruption.
The basic accusation against the City Council members was that they paid themselves salaries of up to $100,000 a year, partly by adding payments for serving on boards that rarely met. An audit by the state controller's office also found that the city had illegally raised property taxes, business license fees and other revenue to pay the salaries. The office ordered the money repaid.
Still awaiting trial is former city manager Robert Rizzo, who the Times reported had an annual compensation package worth $1.5 million, including a salary of roughly $800,000, making him one of the nation's highest-paid public administrators. He managed a city where one-quarter of the residents live below the poverty line and more than 93% are Latino.
The jury has been considering the case since late February.
The verdicts were mixed. Each of the five former officials was found guilty on some counts and not guilty on others.
In an unusual move, Judge Kathleen Kennedy instructed jurors to resume deliberations after they reported being deadlocked on some counts. Following an after-lunch discussion in court, the judge told jurors to return Thursday.
Former mayor Oscar Hernandez and two co-defendants who served on the City Council for the five years covered by the investigation, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal, were convicted of five counts and found innocent on five more counts. Hernandez was convicted of misappropriating public funds related to the city's Solid Waste Authority.
Two other former City Council members who served for a shorter time, George Cole and Victor Bello, were convicted of misappropriating funds.
Rizzo and his former assistant, Angela Spaccia, who received more than $400,000 a year in salary, await trial on a variety of counts related to misappropriation of funds. Rizzo has sought to have his trial moved out of Los Angeles because of pretrial publicity. He faces 69 counts including misappropriating city funds and loaning city money to friends.
The verdicts came in a trial in which prosecutors charged more than 100 counts relating to payments through several agencies and boards established by the city.
Jurors asked for more information on the remaining charges. Defense attorneys argued that a note from one juror read by the judge called into question the verdicts just announced. But Kennedy rejected that argument: "That's done. We're not going to reopen verdicts that have been reached," she said.
The guilty findings were related to the appointment of the defendants to the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority. The board was one of several that prosecutors said council members appointed each other to in order to pad their salaries. The waste authority was never created legally and met only once in 2006, which boosted pay by about $13,000 a year per member.
Hernandez, the former mayor, was unschooled, illiterate and unable to understand city finances, his lawyer had argued in court.
"We elect people who have a good heart. Someone who can listen to your problems and look you in the eye," attorney Stanley Friedman said.
The corruption charges came after the city voted in a low-turnout election -- fewer than 400 votes were cast -- in 2005 to become a "charter" city, allowing it to avoid state limits on public salaries.
Kennedy replaced one of the jurors in late February after the juror claimed she was being harassed by others on the panel and acknowledged doing Internet research about her jury service and discussing it with her daughter. The judge ruled she had committed misconduct and dismissed her after five days of deliberations.
The prosecutor, Edward Miller, called the council members little more than thieves who fattened their own bank accounts at the expense of the community. Defense attorneys said the defendants worked tirelessly.