LOS ANGELES (AP) — It was a simple plan for bilking taxpayers out of more than $1 million: the officials of a Southern California city, whose working-class residents were too busy to pay much attention, would create a handful of fake agencies that did nothing, then pay themselves huge amounts of money for serving on them.
That was the scenario Deputy District Attorney Edward Miller laid out Monday during the first day of a preliminary hearing to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to send Bell's mayor, vice mayor and four other current and former elected officials to trial on dozens of fraud charges.
The case has brought international attention to the small city near Los Angeles, a blue-collar suburb of 40,000 where one in six live in poverty, and where it was revealed last summer that city council members paid themselves about $100,000 apiece for their part-time service.
Its former city manager, meanwhile, had a salary and benefits package of about $1.5 million a year, and its former assistant city manager made $376,288 a year. They will face similar charges during their own preliminary hearing, which will begin as soon as this one ends, likely next week.
In the case of the six current and former officials, Miller told Superior Court Judge Henry J. Hall that they padded and hid their salaries by putting themselves on the Bell Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, the Community Housing Authority, the Surplus Property Authority and the Public Finance Authority.
The entities would go years between meetings, he said, and when they met, it was usually for a few minutes and often for votes to increase members' salaries.
"No one knows what the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority does," Miller said.
But still, he said, former Councilman Luis Artiga was paid $33,000 for being a board member, although he never attended a meeting.
Others who allegedly benefited over the years were Mayor Oscar Hernandez; Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo; Councilman George Mirabal; former Mayor George Cole, and former Councilman Victor Bello.
Lawyers for only Mirabal and Cole said during opening statements that everything the Bell officials did was legal.
"The people can talk about the dastardly deeds of these politicians, but at the end of the day, the remedy is to vote them out of office," said Ronald Kaye, who represents Cole.
In all, eight current and former officials, including former City Manager Robert Rizzo and former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia, are accused of bilking the city out of $5.5 million in what District Attorney Steve Cooley called "corruption on steroids" when they were led from their homes in handcuffs last September.
Rizzo also faces charges of falsifying public documents — to hide the officials' salaries for sitting on the phony panels, Miller alleged Monday.
The judge also heard briefly from Bell Councilman Lorenzo Velez, the only sitting council member who was not charged in the scandal. He was to resume his testimony Tuesday.
Velez, who drew a salary of only about $620 a month, testified he had never heard of any of the four commissions until the Los Angeles Times reported on his colleagues' and other Bell officials' salaries last summer.
When he asked the council members why they were making so much money, Velez said, he was told of their work on the authority boards and learned he was a member of those boards too. Velez, who was appointed to the council in 2009 to replace Bello, said he was also told if he was re-elected this year he'd be eligible for those salaries too.
Velez, who now refuses to take any salary for his council service, is running for re-election March 8. The names of Hernandez, Jacobo and Mirabal are also on the ballot that day — but for a separate recall election.
All eight defendants have pleaded not guilty, and all but Bello, who sat in court handcuffed and in an orange jail jumpsuit, are free on bail.
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