NEW: A good-government activist says, "We're ready as a community ... to move on"
NEW: Former Bell, California, Mayor Oscar Hernandez's lawyer suggests an appeal
He was convicted on five corruption charges and found not guilty on five others
So, too, were several other former members of the L.A. suburb's city council
For years, prosecutors said, they padded their paychecks by virtue of their stature as leaders in Bell, California’s city government.
On Wednesday, they paid for it.
Oscar Hernandez was found guilty on five felony charges for the misappropriation of funds stemming from his years as Bell’s mayor, by the same jury that also convicted four former city council members on various counts.
But it wasn’t a sweeping verdict. Nearly two months after the trial started in January, the jurors also found Hernandez not guilty on five other charges, as they did with others. More acquittals – and convictions – could be coming, as the jury continues to weigh several counts pending against each defendant.
And one ex-council member, Luis Antonio Artiga, cried in court when he heard he’d been found not guilty on all charges he had faced.
“You are free to go sir,” Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy said afterward. “Good luck to you.”
The split verdicts for Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal, George Cole and Victor Bello came two and a half years after the Los Angeles Times first reported salaries for them and others were well above the norm – especially considering that Bell, situated about 10 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, is a relatively small city of 36,000 people.
Their indictments left a cloud over the city, which was mired in a financial mess.
“This community is left with a burden, a huge burden. Not just economically, but a burden of trust,” current city council member Nestor Enrique Valencia told reporters following Wednesday’s verdict. “The people are ashamed of them.”
Prosecutors 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 and Recycling Authority, Surplus Property Authority, Public Finance Authority and Community Housing Authority, authorities said.
Except for Artiga, the jury found the defendants guilty of misappropriation of funds for “payment of services as (members) of the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority.” They were found not guilty of misappropriating funds while members of the public financing authority.
Verdicts have not yet been reached on charges tied to the former public officials’ work – except for Artiga – related to the two other committees.
Hernandez’s lawyer, Stanley Friedman, told reporters after the verdicts Wednesday that his client didn’t knowingly break the law. He just took the salary offered him and did his job.
“I suspect all of us, if we got a job and they said you’re getting paid $90,000 a year for a full-time job, we’d be pleased and we wouldn’t do analysis of how the employer broke down the salaries,” Friedman said.
Friedman suggested that his client, at least, will fight the convictions thus far.
“These individuals didn’t know that it was illegal,” the lawyer said. “… And I think they have very significant appeal issues, all of them.”
Even with the jury still weighing some charges and more fights ahead in court, some Bell residents nonetheless took satisfaction in Wednesday’s verdict.
After believing her public officials had bilked her for years, Dennise Rodarte said she was happy that – at least to some extent – the jurors saw that too. And with that, she’s ready to end this chapter in the city’s history and move forward.
“It’s justice,” the clean government activist told CNN affiliate KTLA. “At this point, … we’re ready as a community and as a city to really move on.”