LOS ANGELES - Jury selection begins today in the trial of the former mayor of Bell and five ex-City Council members accused of misappropriating public funds by collecting exorbitant salaries.
About 100 potential jurors are expected to be handed questionnaires gauging their knowledge of the case against former Mayor Oscar Hernandez and former council members Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal, Luis Artiga, George Cole and Victor Bello.
Prospective jurors will be given about a week to fill out the questionnaires, and jury selection will resume before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy Jan. 22.
The defendants are each facing multiple counts -- some as many as 20 -- of misappropriating city funds through their work on various city agencies, including the Community Housing Authority, Public Financing Authority and Solid Waste and Recycling Authority.
Prosecutors say the defendants paid themselves thousands of dollars for attending meetings that sometimes lasted only a matter of minutes, adding up to annual pay of nearly $100,000 in a city of roughly 35,000 residents.
Defense attorneys contend the former mayor and council members spent significant time working on city issues outside of public hearings.
"Whatever salary he was getting, it was because he had a 24/7 job," according to Hernandez's attorney, Stanley Friedman.
State legal limits on pay for city council members were irrelevant, defense attorneys said, because as a charter city, Bell officials could pay themselves without regard to such pay caps.
But Deputy District Attorney Edward Miller accused four of the five defendants of "paying themselves illegal salaries" before Bell was a charter city and then, in 2005, lying about their previous salaries.
Based on a state Supreme Court ruling last August, prosecutors in a public corruption case must prove the defendants knew they were breaking the law or were criminally negligent in not knowing. During a pretrial hearing Monday, attorneys discussed what types of evidence on that issue would be used during the trial.
"I have substantial conspiracy evidence" not disclosed during the preliminary hearing, Miller told the judge.
Cole's attorney, Ronald Kay, said his client would testify in his own defense, but the other lawyers did not say if their clients would take the stand.
Former City Administrator Robert Rizzo and his then-assistant, Angela Spaccia, are awaiting trial in a separate corruption case. More than 50 counts of fraud have been filed against against Rizzo, seen as the ringleader of the alleged effort to loot the city's treasury by paying bloated salaries to himself and other officials and arranging illicit loans of taxpayer money.