LOS ANGELES (AP) — The jurors who convicted five former city councilors of stealing taxpayer dollars from a struggling Los Angeles suburb that became a national symbol of political greed were told repeatedly that the scheme's real villain was a man not even in court.
The defendants, their lawyers and even some prosecution witnesses said the true mastermind who put in place the scheme that bilked the city of Bell out of $5.5 million was disgraced former City Manager Robert Rizzo. He is expected to face his own trial on similar charges later this year.
In the end, legal experts said, making Rizzo the villain may have had some impact on Wednesday's mixed verdict in which Bell's former mayor and four former City Council members were convicted of 21 counts of misappropriating public funds but found not guilty of 21 other counts. A sixth former council member was acquitted of all charges.
Jurors, meanwhile, deadlocked on about half of the more than 80 counts prosecutors filed. They were to continue deliberations on those charges Thursday.
"It's a lot easier to point the finger at Rizzo who received the most ill-gotten gains," said Rebecca Lonergan, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at the University of Southern California. "It gave them a bigger bad guy who wasn't sitting next to them."
Mark Werksman, a defense attorney not involved in the case, agreed.
"People lower on the rung always have the opportunity to deflect blame to try and attribute it to people higher up," he said. "That seems to be what happened here."
Still, Werksman said the mixed verdict was clearly a victory for prosecutors.
"There is no way to characterize this as anything but a serious loss for the defendants," he said.
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.
City records revealed that Rizzo had an annual salary and compensation package worth $1.5 million, making him one of the highest paid administrators in the country.
His salary alone was about $800,000 a year — double that of the president of the United States.
The six former City Council members were each paid about $100,000 a year.
Former Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez and former Council members Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal were each convicted of five counts of misapprorpriating public funds. Former Councilman Victor Bello was convicted of four counts and former Councilman George Cole of two.
Prosecutors declined to say what sentences they may face until the other charges are resolved.
Former Councilman Luis Artiga was acquitted of all charges. The pastor of Bell Community Church broke down in tears and pointed heavenward as the not guilty verdicts were read.
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