LOS ANGELES (AP) — Closing the first act in a corruption case, a prosecutor and defense attorneys plan to argue Wednesday whether testimony in the trial of six former Bell city officials proves they paid themselves exorbitant salaries and made up sham commissions to bolster their pay.
Most of the defendants testified in the monthlong trial, saying they earned six-figure salaries as City Council members in the Los Angeles suburb where one in six of its 40,000 residents live in poverty. The six defendants, charged with misappropriation of funds, justified their salaries as fair pay for long hours of work, according to The Los Angeles Times.
They blamed City Manager Robert Rizzo for the rip-off that cost the city millions of dollars and nearly bankrupted it.
Rizzo and his assistant city manager, Angela Spazzio, face a trial later in the year.
The defendants said they were never told anything they did was illegal, according to the Times. Bell City Attorney Edward Lee wrote the city's charter and was blamed by defendants for not telling them their salaries could be illegal, though neither side called him as a witness.
Testimony revealed evidence of falsified salaries and a city clerk who signed minutes for meetings she didn't attend.
Authorities say the defendants stole more than $300,000 during a two-minute meeting in which they voted themselves salary raises for their sham positions.
Legally, said Deputy District Attorney Edward Miller, the officials could have paid themselves $673 a month for what was a part-time job, since they did not actually run the city.
Those on trial are former mayor Oscar Hernandez, 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.
Miller alleged 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 and often met yearly just to increase their salaries.
The most blatant, he said, was creation of the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, which he called "a fiction" designed to line the officials' pockets.
"They gave themselves raises which were not even drafted by a lawyer. Somebody just made this up out of the blue," Miller said.
During Cole's testimony, the prosecutor pointed out that the councilman had a chauffeur and car to get around the city, which spans just 2 1/2 miles.
After disclosure of the scandal, Bell residents revolted and turned out in the thousands to protest at City Council meetings. They ultimately staged a successful recall election at which they threw out the entire council and elected a slate of new leaders.
An audit by the state controller's office determined Bell had illegally raised property taxes, business license fees and other sources of revenue to pay the salaries and ordered the money repaid.