Crime & Justice

Bell scandal: Former city councilman gets 1 year in jail, 5 years probation

In this file photo, former Bell council member George Mirabal looks over some documents on the opening day of closing arguments session on February 20, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. Mirabal was sentenced on Friday to a year in county jail. He is the first of five council members expected  to be sentenced in the coming weeks.
In this file photo, former Bell council member George Mirabal looks over some documents on the opening day of closing arguments session on February 20, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. Mirabal was sentenced on Friday to a year in county jail. He is the first of five council members expected to be sentenced in the coming weeks.
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Former Bell City Councilman George Mirabal was sentenced today to one year in county jail, five years probation and 1,000 hours of community service for bilking the working-class municipality's taxpayers through an inflated salary he received for serving on boards that rarely met.

Mirabal, 64, is the first of five former Bell council members convicted in the corruption scandal to be sentenced.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy suspended a four-year state prison term against Mirabal, who will not have to serve any of that time as long as he successfully completes the terms of his probation.

Mirabal, who also must pay $242,293 in restitution, is scheduled to begin serving his jail term July 25. He was credited with about 80 days — for jail time already served and good-behavior credit.

Mirabal and four other city council members pleaded no contest April 9 to two felony counts each of misappropriation of public funds in a plea deal to resolve the remaining corruption charges against them.

Mirabal, former Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez and former Councilwoman Teresa Jacobo were each convicted in March 2013 of five counts of misappropriation of public funds and acquitted of five others. Former Councilman George Cole was convicted of two counts and acquitted of two others, while former Councilman Victor Bello was convicted of four counts and acquitted of four others.

Jurors deadlocked on a handful of counts against the five, with the prosecution announcing in May 2013 that it intended to retry those charges. The plea deals reached earlier this year resolved the remaining counts, eliminating the need for another trial.

Jurors exonerated former Councilman Luis Artiga of all 12 charges against him.

Before imposing the sentence, the judge said, "I feel terrible for what happened in Bell. It was a failure of our political process in every way."

The judge noted that Mirabal and his former colleagues "did some bad things and broke the law."

"It's not against the law to make a high salary," Kennedy said, while noting that it would have been legal if the resolutions had been clearly drafted and the residents of Bell had been aware.

"It was done in (a) clandestine manner that nobody could figure out...," the judge said.

Kennedy said Mirabal should have looked closer at how the city was being run and done something about it, but said she didn't think the former councilman was without some "redeeming qualities."

The judge focused her strongest criticism on former City Administrator Robert Rizzo and former Assistant City Administrator Angela Spaccia, who were sentenced earlier this year to state prison in connection with the corruption scandal, saying the damage the two did was "absolutely tremendous" and that the council members were "the only ones who could have stopped Mr. Rizzo."

Outside court, Mirabal said he felt the sentence — which, except for the jail time, was what the defense had requested — was "very fair," but he noted that his political career was not ending the way he had wanted. He told reporters it will "hurt" to go back to county jail, where he and his former council colleagues spent some time behind bars before being released on bail after their arrests in September 2010.

Mirabal told the judge that he "was not vigilant to what was happening in the city," and apologized to the city of Bell and its residents.

"I am here today to face and accept the responsibility for my failures," he said, telling the judge that he has had a 30-year love affair with the city.

Deputy District Attorney Sean Hassett said he appreciated Mirabal's "apology to the city of Bell for what he's done," but asked the judge to impose the maximum four-year state prison term allowed under the plea agreement. The prosecutor told the judge that Bell residents were denied basic services as the defendants "got richer and richer."

In a sentencing memorandum, Hassett wrote that the court would be "hard- pressed to find a more egregious case of public corruption."

The prosecutor told reporters outside court he was "disappointed" with the sentence and was not sure exactly how much of the 365-day jail term Mirabal will actually have to serve.

Bell Mayor Nestor Enrique Valencia — who had called on the judge to impose a "full measure of justice" — said after the hearing that he was also disappointed with the sentence.

"They're going to think it's another kick in the face," he said of the city's electorate. "The maximum should have been served on this, in my opinion."

Hernandez, Jacobo, Bello and Cole — who are also facing a term between probation and four years in prison — are set to be sentenced within the next month.

Mirabal's attorney, Alex Kessel, said he believed the sentence could serve as a potential insight into what kind of sentences the other former council members could face, noting that his client had not wanted to be the first to be sentenced. The other defendants' sentencing dates have all been postponed.

During the trial, prosecutors contended that the five were paid illegal salaries for sitting on four city boards that rarely met, with their salaries reaching $100,000 in a city of 2 1/2 square miles where the median household income was $35,000.

Defense attorneys countered during the trial that their clients were wrongly accused, arguing that they worked diligently for the city and earned their salaries.

The five were charged in September 2010 along with Rizzo and Spaccia in what then-District Attorney Steve Cooley said was "corruption on steroids."

Rizzo pleaded no contest last October to all 69 charges against him and was sentenced April 17 to 12 years in prison and ordered to pay $8.8 million in restitution.

Spaccia was convicted last December of 11 felony counts, including misappropriation of public funds and conflict of interest. Jurors acquitted her of one count of secretion of a public record involving former Bell Police Chief Randy Adams' employment contract, and deadlocked on another count — misappropriation of public funds involving an alleged $75,500 loan of taxpayer money in 2003 — that was eventually dismissed.

She was sentenced in April to 11 years and eight months in state prison and ordered to pay more than $8 million in restitution. Spaccia is appealing her conviction.