Six former city officials of Bell, Calif., went on trial Thursday, accused of driving the blue-collar suburb nearly to bankruptcy by stealing more than $1.3 million through inflated pay raises and service on sham commissions.
LOS ANGELES — With six former city officials lined up in chairs behind him, a Los Angeles County prosecutor portrayed them Thursday as thieves who bilked their small town treasury for more than $1.3 million, paying themselves for work they did not do.
In one instance, the defendants stole more than $300,000 during a two-minute meeting in which they voted themselves salary raises for sham positions on commissions that did nothing, said Deputy district Attorney Edward Miller.
"The evidence will show the defendants stole over $1.3 million," he said.
Running through the list of meetings that lasted a few minutes each, Miller said, "They worked less hours than my opening statement will take this morning."
Legally, he said, the officials could have paid themselves $673 a month for what was a part-time job since they did not actually run the city. The blue collar suburb of Los Angeles was managed by Robert Rizzo, who stands trial later in the year with his assistant city manager on allegations he misappropriated millions.
In addition to their council salaries of upward of $80,000 a year, the officials collected payment for sitting on the boards of four sham commissions that did no work, Miller said.
He alleged a pattern of scams in which the defendants appointed each other to the commissions that did nothing, held meetings that sometimes lasted only two minutes, and often met yearly just to increase their salaries.
The most blatant, he said, was creation of the Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, which he called "a fiction" designed to line the officials' pockets.
"They gave themselves raises which were not even drafted by a lawyer. Somebody just made this up out of the blue," Miller said.
The former mayor, vice mayor and four City Council members are charged with misappropriation of public funds. All but one of the defendants served as mayor at some point.
Prosecutors said the city treasury was looted to the tune of $5.5 million and the modest city of Bell was driven to the brink of bankruptcy.
Miller said the years-long scam thrived because few people ever attended City Council meetings to keep watch on their elected leaders. At one meeting, 12 people were in the audience and most were relatives of the council members, he said.
Those now on trial are former Mayor Oscar Hernandez, former vice mayor Teresa Jacobo and former council members George Mirabal, George Cole, Victor Bello and Luis Artiga.
Their lawyers were to speak later in the day and were expected to argue that they were upstanding citizens who worked hard for the city.
The six are charged in a 20-count felony complaint accusing them of paying themselves exorbitant salaries and setting up sham commissions.
Miller said the alleged wrongdoing was discovered in 2008 when Roger Ramirez, a citizen who attended council meetings regularly, heard that Rizzo was being paid $400,000 a year and council members were being paid $80,000. He asked for an accounting and despite efforts by Rizzo to avoid the revelations, they became public.
Outraged residents who had seen their taxes and fees go up turned out by the thousands to protest when the scandal broke. They held a successful recall election and threw out the entire council.
MSN News on Facebook and Twitter
Stay up to date on breaking news and current events.
Friend us on Facebook: www.facebook.com/news.msn
Follow us on Twitter: www.twitter.com/msnnews