California corruption trial ends in mistrial
LOS ANGELES (AP) – For more than three weeks jurors heard testimony about former elected officials who were accused of a salary-inflating scheme that drove a working-class Los Angeles suburb to the brink of bankruptcy. The panel deliberated for roughly as long.
A judge declared a mistrial Thursday after jurors, who spent more than 19 days weighing the evidence, said they were deadlocked on the remaining 42 counts. The decision to end the trial came after a series of notes from jurors that not only questioned their previous finding of guilt against the former leaders of Bell but showed tensions had boiled over.
In Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy’s estimation, “all hell has broken loose in the jury deliberation room.”
On Wednesday the panel of seven woman and five men convicted the former mayor and four former Bell council members of a total of 21 counts of misappropriating public funds and acquitted them on 21 other counts. A sixth former official was acquitted of all charges.
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.
On Thursday, deliberations resumed on the remaining counts.
After jurors indicated they might be able to break a 9-3 stalemate, Kennedy asked them to keep deliberating. It was later disclosed the vote was in favor of guilt.
But the amount of time spent deliberating apparently was getting to jurors. One juror sent a note Thursday that read: “Your honor, I respectfully ask if you could please remind the jury to remain respectful and to not make false accusations or insults to one another.”
The revelation came after another juror said in a note that “due to the pressure and stress of the deliberation process” the jury may have given an improper guilty verdict.
“It is better to be certain beyond a reasonable doubt to give a verdict of guilty than send someone innocent to prosecution,” the note read. Kennedy ruled the verdicts would stand and not be revisited.
Jurors said they did not want to speak to the news media or attorneys and asked to be escorted privately from the courthouse. Prosecutors also declined to comment.
Defense attorneys said they planned to file a motion for a new trial based on possible juror misconduct.
“I think our clients were vilified in the court of public opinion. The call for their guilt has been ringing out,” said Alex Kessel, former Councilman George Mirabal’s attorney.
A hearing was scheduled for April 23 to determine whether the deadlocked counts will be retried. Sentencing on the guilty verdicts was not immediately set. Defense attorneys said their clients are eligible for probation.
The case involving the modest 2½-square-mile city has become a national symbol of political greed. Authorities said the scheme was masterminded by former City Manager Robert Rizzo that enriched him, the council members and other top city officials. Rizzo and his former assistant, Angela Spaccia, are scheduled to face trial later this year on similar charges.
The city of Bell has about 36,000 residents, with one in four people living below the poverty line.
As its manager, Rizzo had an annual compensation package of about $1.5 million. His salary alone was about $800,000 a year or twice that of the president of the United States. The six former City Council members were each paid about $100,000 a year.
The convictions were all related to the money the five were paid for their service on Bell’s Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, an entity prosecutors said was a sham agency created only to pay them money. Records show the authority met only one time between 2006 and 2010 and there was no evidence any waste was ever collected or recycled.
The defendants, many of whom took the witness stand during the trial, insisted they earned their salaries by working around the clock to help residents. They and their lawyers blamed Rizzo for creating the fiscal mess in Bell.
“We were never part-time employees of the city,” Mirabal said outside court Friday.
The other defendants declined comment.
GREG RISLING, JOHN ROGERS
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