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1st Calif. city corruption case heading to close

Linda Deutsch, AP Special Correspondent

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A scandal-ridden Los Angeles suburb was turned upside down by officials who felt they were above the law and collected paychecks for jobs that didn't exist, a prosecutor said Wednesday during closing arguments in a massive corruption case.

The city of Bell was nearly driven to bankruptcy by the outrageous actions of six former officials who are facing charges of misappropriating funds, Prosecutor Ed Miller said.

Legally, the officials could have paid themselves $673 a month for what was a part-time job, since they didn't actually run the city, Miller said. But in addition to their council salaries of as much as $80,000 a year, the officials appointed each other to commissions that did nothing and often met yearly just to increase their pay, he said.

The most blatant was the creation of the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, which Miller called "a fiction" designed to line the officials' pockets.

"They gave themselves raises which were not even drafted by a lawyer," he said. "Somebody just made this up out of the blue."

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.

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. Testimony during the monthlong trial also revealed evidence of falsified salaries and a city clerk who signed minutes for meetings she didn't attend.

Most of the defendants testified, saying they earned their salaries through long hours of work. 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.

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, throwing out the entire council and electing 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.

Defense attorneys were scheduled to present counter-arguments later Wednesday.

City Manager Robert Rizzo and his assistant city manager, Angela Spazzio, face a trial later in the year.