LOS ANGELES — The mayor, vice mayor and four other past and present officials of the scandal-ridden city of Bell shirked their responsibilities and sold out their constituents for financial gain, a judge said Wednesday in ordering them to stand trial on nearly two dozen charges of looting the modest, blue-collar suburb they presided over.
In a lengthy, strongly worded statement from the bench that several defense attorneys said caught them by surprise, Superior Court Judge Henry Hall suggested the six could have been charged with even more crimes. He also ordered that they stay 100 yards away from City Hall and not engage in any government activity involving Bell.
"I find this is a matter of grave public safety to the people of Bell," he said in issuing his stay-away order. He added that he had considered putting the five of the six who are free on bail back in jail to ensure compliance, but decided not to go that far.
When told by Mayor Oscar Hernandez's attorney that his order would effectively shut down Bell's city government, Hall replied that Hernandez and other officials had been skipping City Council meetings for months since the scandal broke, preventing the council from having enough members to meet anyway.
"These people were elected to be the voice of the people, to be a safeguard," Hall said. "And they basically sold that off."
Hernandez, Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo, Councilman George Mirabal and former council members George Cole, Luis Artiga and Victor Bello are charged with taking part in a scam with former City Manager Robert Rizzo and Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia that looted the city of $5.5 million.
The scandal, in which authorities say property taxes and business taxes were illegally raised and funds like gas taxes illegally diverted as officials' salaries shot up dramatically in recent years, has put Bell as much as $4.5 million debt and on the brink of bankruptcy.
Rizzo, who had an annual salary and compensation package of $1.5 million, and Spaccia, who was paid $376,288 a year, face a similar hearing next week. The council members each received about $100,000 a year, which Hall said was about 20 times more than they were legally entitled to make.
Defense attorneys had argued that the council members earned their salaries, working full time on the city's behalf, not only attending monthly council meeting but taking part in community projects that benefited low-income people, the aged and numerous others. Their clients, they said, weren't aware of what Rizzo was doing and were only singled out by prosecutors after word of the Bell salary scandal garnered nationwide attention.
"This is an unfair, politically motivated and unjust prosecution and it should stop today," Ronald Kaye, Cole's attorney, said during his closing argument.
In his lengthy statement, which took the court well past its normal adjournment hour, Hall indicated he wasn't buying any of that.
He agreed with prosecutors that the officials had created sham boards and commissions that existed for no reason but to pay them huge salaries.
Going over minutes dating back five years for the city's Surplus Property Authority, Hall noted it met only a handful of times between 2005 and 2010 and never for more than a minute or two. He calculated that that resulted in council members being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars an hour for sitting on the authority's board.
"Good money," the judge said sarcastically.
He said the city's Solid Waste and Recycling Authority was never legally created and, in any case, met only one time, in 2006, to vote its members a pay raise.
"It was a sham agency," Hall said.
He scheduled the six for arraignment March. 2. All but Bello remain free on bond. He has been in jail since his arrest, unable to raise bail, and he appeared in court Wednesday handcuffed and in yellow jail garb.
Most of the defendants left court in silence, but Artiga said quietly that he wasn't surprised by the judge's ruling.
"That's all I can say," he said. "If I say anymore I'll get in trouble."
Several attorneys said they weren't surprised by the ruling either, noting the level of evidence required to send someone to trial is much lower than that required for a criminal conviction.
"I was surprised with the passion with which the judge rendered his denial of the motions to dismiss," said Hernandez's lawyer, Stanley L. Friedman. "I just think Oscar Hernandez and the others are quite sympathetic."
He said Hernandez and the others worked hard for the city where one in six people live in poverty and were misled by Rizzo and other city employees.
During the preliminary hearing two city employees testified that they helped falsify documents on Rizzo's orders to hide officials' true salaries.
"I wouldn't compare them to a lawyer who commits ethical violations or a doctor who commits ethical violations," Friedman said.
Those were the comparisons the judge made in ordering the six to trial.