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California Trial Begins for Bell Officials

Trials began on Tuesday for six former Bell, Calif., officials charged in a corruption case that came to light in 2010 and nearly bankrupted the city, according to the Associated Press.

The former mayor, vice mayor and four former City Council members are charged with misappropriation of public finds in a 20-count felony complaint, according to the report.

Officials are being tried on charges that they looted the city’s treasury in order to pay themselves outrageous salaries and created sham commissions to embezzle funds from the city.

Former city manager Robert Rizzo and assistant city manager Angela Spaccia are scheduled to be tried separately.

Rizzo and Spaccia are also accused of siphoning off millions of dollars by raising taxes and fees on residents in the working-class suburb.

Prosecutors contend that Rizzo had an annual salary and compensation package worth $1.5 million and that he masterminded a scheme to steal more than $6 million from Bell’s coffers. Spaccia, the assistant city manager, was paid $376,288 a year.

Part-time council members drew salaries of about $100,000 a year, which was about 20 times more than they were entitled to make, said Superior Court Judge Henry Hall, who presided over the preliminary hearings.

The jury selection process began Tuesday and the trial is scheduled to last seven weeks.

The six defendants are expected to claim they worked hard for the city and were unaware of Rizzo’s financial manipulations, according to the report.

Those who are set to go on trial Tuesday are former Mayor Oscar Hernandez, former vice mayor Teresa Jacobo and former council members George Mirabal, George Cole, Victor Bello and Luis Artiga.

Testimony at the trial is expected to focus on the creation of sham boards and commissions such as the city’s Surplus Property Authority, which met only just a handful of times between 2005 and 2010.

According to Hall’s calculations, that that resulted in council members being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars an hour for sitting on the authority’s board.

Former district attorney Steve Cooley, who filed the Bell corruption cases, said more than $5.5 million was taken from the city coffers.

The scandal resulted in a recall election that brought an entirely new slate of council members and a new mayor to lead the city in early 2011.

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