Juror: Improper guilty verdict might have been reached in corruption case
LOS ANGELES (AP) – A jury in the civic corruption trial of former elected officials in the blue-collar, California city of Bell resumed deliberations Thursday, with at least one member indicating in a note that an improper guilty verdict might have been reached earlier.
Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy heard arguments from defense attorneys over the note and an earlier juror message, but said she would not revisit verdicts that had already been reached and ordered deliberations on undecided counts.
“The chips are going to fall where they fall,” Kennedy said.
Jurors reached mixed verdicts on Wednesday of guilty and not guilty for a former mayor and four former Bell City Council members, and acquitted a sixth defendant of all charges.
Jurors were unable to decide on numerous other allegations of misappropriation of public funds and Kennedy told them to keep deliberating.
On Thursday, one juror, who asked to remain anonymous, sent a note to the judge that referenced a verdict involving one of the municipal boards that prosecutors contend the officials used to help boost their salaries.
“I have been debating in my own mind that due to the pressure and stress of the deliberation process the jury may have given an improper verdict on the Solid Waste Authority,” the note said. “It is better to be certain beyond a reasonable doubt to give a verdict of guilty than send someone innocent to prosecution.”
In a note sent Wednesday, a juror identified as No. 10 said she thought the jury was straying from the judge’s instructions.
Defense attorneys argued Thursday that the notes might indicate there is misconduct in deliberations.
“There may be horse-trading to give up one verdict to get another,” said defense lawyer Alex Kessel, who represents former Councilman George Mirabal.
Kennedy said pressure is placed on juries in all cases that involve deliberations.
“That is not tantamount to misconduct,” she said.
Defense attorneys also questioned whether the jury instructions were prejudicial to their clients.
At one point, defense attorney Ron Kaye, who represents ex-Councilman George Cole, suggested that jurors hear more evidence about the case, drawing an angry rebuke from the judge.
“You are not going to reopen evidence,” she said. “That is not provided. No!”
The case involving the 2½-square-mile city has become a national symbol of political greed. Authorities allege the salary-inflating scheme that bilked the city of $5.5 million was masterminded by former City Manager Robert Rizzo, who is expected to go on trial with his assistant later this year.
On Wednesday, Bell’s former mayor and four former City Council members were convicted of a combined 21 counts of misappropriating public funds but found not guilty of 21 other counts.
The convictions were the first to come after revelations more than a year ago that Bell’s leadership had illegally raised taxes, business license fees and other sources of income to pay huge salaries to the city manager, police chief, City Council members and others.
The six former City Council members were each paid about $100,000 a year.
Former Mayor Oscar Hernandez and former City Council members Teresa Jacobo and Mirabal were each convicted of five counts of misappropriating public funds. Former Councilman Victor Bello was convicted of four counts and former Councilman Cole of two.
Prosecutors declined to say what sentences they could face until the other charges are resolved.
Former Councilman Luis Artiga was acquitted of all charges.
The convictions all related to the defendants being paid for sitting on Bell’s Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, an entity they could not prove had been legally established or did any work.
Records show the authority met only one time between 2006 and 2010 and there was no evidence any waste was ever collected or recycled.
Many of the still unresolved charges relate to the council members’ work on other agencies that prosecutors also say were created only to help boost their salaries.
The defendants, many of whom took the witness stand during the trial, insisted they earned those salaries by working around the clock to help residents. They and their lawyers blamed Rizzo for creating the fiscal mess Bell was left in.
The city of 36,000 residents, where one in four people live below the poverty line, was threatened with bankruptcy after the state controller ordered that the illegally collected taxes, license fees and other revenue be repaid.
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