5 ex-officials guilty in Bell, Calif., case

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LOS ANGELES -- Five former elected officials of the blue-collar city of Bell, Calif., were convicted yesterday of multiple counts of misappropriating public funds by paying themselves huge salaries while raising residents' taxes.

Former Mayor Oscar Hernandez and co-defendants Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal, George Cole and Victor Belo were all convicted of multiple counts and acquitted of others.

Former Councilman Luis Artiga was cleared entirely.

The charges involved paying themselves inflated salaries of up to $100,000 a year in the city of 36,000 people, where one in four residents lives below the poverty line. An audit by the state controller's office had found property taxes, business license fees and other sources of revenue had been raised illegally to pay the salaries. The office ordered the money repaid.

The guilty findings were related to the appointment of the defendants to the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, an agency that prosecutors argued during trial served no purpose other than to pay them a salary.

All were cleared of charges that they illegally tapped public money while serving on the city's Public Financing Authority. The waste authority was never created legally and met once in 2006, boosting pay by about $13,000 per member.

Artiga was found not guilty of a dozen allegations. He was the only defendant who had not served as mayor at some point.

The scandal that rocked Bell raised the curtain on a fiefdom established by former City Manager Robert Rizzo. City records revealed Rizzo had an annual salary and compensation package worth $1.5 million, making him one of the nation's highest paid administrators. His salary alone was about $800,000 a year, double that of the president of the United States.

Rizzo and his assistant city manager, Angela Spaccia, face trial later, accused of a scheme to loot the city treasury.

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