The city of Bell corruption trial staggered to a close Thursday after the judge exclaimed that “all hell has broken loose” and declared a mistrial on the remaining 42 counts.
Ex-Mayor Oscar Hernandez mayor and four of the five former city councilmembers on trial, George Mirabal, Teresa Jacobo, George Cole and Victor Bello, were convicted on 21 counts of misappropriating public funds the day before and acquitted of 21 others. Ex-Councilman Luis Artiga, a pastor, was acquitted.
They all blamed former City Manager Robert Rizzo, considered by prosecutors to be the architect of long-running plans to bilk the blue-collar, Southern California town of 36,000 out of millions of dollars. He is scheduled to go on trial later this year with his former assistant, Angela Spaccia. Rizzo’s annual compensation package was $1.5 million, with a base salary of $800,000. Prosecutors allege Rizzo improperly relieved the city coffers of $5.5 million.
Jurors were reportedly split 9-3 on the remaining counts. The officials were paid around $100,000 a year to attend meetings of sham boards that rarely, if ever, actually met. An audit by the Office of the State Controller found the city had illegally raised property taxes, business license fees and other sources of revenue to pay them.
The bizarre end to the case was marked by a flurry of last-minute notes between jurors and Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy. The judge was asked if guilty verdicts they reached the day before could be reconsidered. One panelist wrote that the jury may have given an improper verdict on part of the case having to do with the Solid Waste Authority. Another wrote that jurors may be ignoring the judge’s instructions.
One juror asked the judge for more information about ex-Bell City Attorney Edward Lee, who was not on trial and didn’t testify, to help the jury be “certain beyond a reasonable doubt.” One told the judge that jurors were being disrespectful to each other, making false accusations and exchanging insults.
One juror had already been kicked off the panel during deliberations when it was determined that she had researched elements of the case online and talked about the case with others, both verboten.
An exasperated Judge Kennedy was having none of it. She scheduled a hearing for April 23 to determine if any of the deadlocked counts will be retried, but did not set a sentencing date.