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Corruption trial begins for six former city council members in California

By Michael Martinez, CNN
updated 12:17 PM EST, Sat January 26, 2013
Former Bell, California, officials (from left) Robert Rizzo, Angela Spaccia, Victor Bello and Oscar Hernandez appear in court in September 2010.
Former Bell, California, officials (from left) Robert Rizzo, Angela Spaccia, Victor Bello and Oscar Hernandez appear in court in September 2010.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: "All we're waiting for now is justice for our residents," current mayor says
  • NEW: Council members now receive only $673 a month, not $100k a year as before, he says
  • Six former council members in Bell, California, pleaded not guilty in corruption case
  • They are accused of getting big salaries for no work and misappropriating $1.2 million

Los Angeles (CNN) -- Opening statements began Thursday in the corruption trials of six former city council members of Bell, California, who are accused of receiving exorbitant salaries for no work and turning taxpayer money into a personal "piggy bank," officials said.

The six former council members are named in a 20-count complaint accusing them of misappropriating about $1.2 million in public funds.

The six are being tried in a Los Angeles County courtroom: former Mayor Oscar Hernandez and former council members Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal, Luis Artiga, George Cole and Victor Bello, said spokeswoman Jane Robison of the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

Also charged in the corruption case are former City Manager Robert Rizzo and former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia, whose trials have yet to be scheduled, Robison said.

Together, the eight defendants are charged with misappropriating more than $5.5 million, including being paid for phantom committee meetings and making illegal personal loans.

Former District Attorney Steve Cooley had called the case a "feeding frenzy of corruption by Bell officials." He filed the charges in 2010; he retired last year.

Each of the so-called Bell Eight has pleaded not guilty, authorities said.

Prosecutors have alleged that the six ex-council members, as well as the two other former city officials, turned the city treasury into "their own piggy bank, which they looted at will."

Between 2006 and 2010, they "illegally gamed the system to receive ridiculous salaries for doing no work" and were paid nearly $8,000 a month for meetings on four boards that never took place or lasted just a few minutes, prosecutors have alleged.

Those boards were the Solid Waste Authority, Surplus Property Authority, Public Finance Authority and Community Housing Authority, authorities said.

In 2011: Officials in California scandal reject plea deal

Bell, a city of 36,000, is about 10 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles.

The city has taken measures to promote transparency in government by posting the city's "checkbook" on a revamped website, Mayor Ali Saleh told CNN.

The open records are designed to rebuild the public trust, Saleh said.

"All we're waiting for now is justice for our residents," Saleh said of the ongoing trial. "Let's not forget that we still have a lot of issues with litigation that the city has endured because of the scandal."

He was referring to lawsuits against the city, including one filed by Rizzo and by the former police chief, who was making more than $400,000 a year, he said.

Saleh is now focused on "moving the city forward," he said. He said council members no longer make $100,000 a year.

"I'll tell you exactly what my W-2 says from 2012: $8,130.12 -- don't forget the 12 cents," he said, providing his city salary last year. Current council members now receive $673 a month, he said.

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