LOS ANGELES (AP) - For nearly two weeks the judge listened patiently as lawyers for the mayor, vice mayor and others accused of looting a modest, blue-collar city of millions of dollars painted a picture of their clients as tireless community servants who did any number of good deeds for the poor, elderly and others.
But in the end, Superior Court Judge Henry Hall ruled Wednesday that none of that counted. What mattered, the judge said, was that the six had illegally raised their salaries to 20 times above what state law allows and would have to stand trial on nearly two dozen felony counts of misappropriation of public funds. He ordered them to return to court March 2 for arraignment.
In a lengthy, strongly worded statement from the bench that several defense attorneys said caught them by surprise, Hall suggested the six could have been charged with even more crimes. He also ordered that they stay 100 yards away from City Hall and not engage in any government activity involving Bell.
"I find this is a matter of grave public safety to the people of Bell," he said in issuing his stay-away order. He added that he had considered putting five of the six who are free on bail back in jail to ensure compliance, but decided not to go that far.
When told by Mayor Oscar Hernandez's attorney that his order would effectively shut down Bell's city government, Hall replied that Hernandez and other officials had been skipping City Council meetings for months since the Bell salary scandal broke, preventing the council from having enough members to meet anyway.
"These people were elected to be the voice of the people, to be a safeguard," Hall said. "And they basically sold that off."
Hernandez, Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo, Councilman George Mirabal and former council members George Cole, Luis Artiga and Victor Bello are charged with taking part in a scam with former City Manager Robert Rizzo and Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia that looted the city of $5.5 million.
The scandal, in which authorities say property taxes and business taxes were illegally raised and funds like gas taxes illegally diverted as officials' salaries shot up dramatically in recent years, has put Bell as much as $4.5 million debt and on the brink of bankruptcy.
Rizzo, who had an annual salary and compensation package of $1.5 million, and Spaccia, who was paid $376,288 a year, face a similar hearing next week. The council members each received about $100,000 a year.
During a preliminary hearing that lasted eight days, defense attorneys argued that the council members earned their salaries, working full time on the city's behalf, not only attending monthly council meeting but taking part in numerous community projects that benefited low-income people, the aged and others in the city where one in six people live in poverty.
"The bottom line is they worked very hard for the city, they gave their heart to the city and they were paid a fair salary by the city," Hernandez's lawyer, Stanley L. Friedman, said during his closing argument.
Their clients, the lawyers said, weren't aware of what Rizzo was doing and were only singled out by prosecutors after word of the salary scandal garnered nationwide attention.
"This is an unfair, politically motivated and unjust prosecution and it should stop today," said Cole's attorney, Ronald Kaye.
In his lengthy statement, which took the court well past its normal adjournment hour, Hall indicated he wasn't buying any of that.
He agreed with prosecutors that the officials had created sham boards and commissions that existed for no reason but to pay them huge salaries.
All of the defendants but Bello, a former mayor of Bell, remain free on bond. He has been in jail since his arrest, unable to raise bail, and he appeared in court Wednesday handcuffed and in yellow jail garb.
Most of the defendants left court in silence, but Artiga said quietly that he wasn't surprised by the judge's ruling.
"That's all I can say," he said. "If I say anymore I'll get in trouble."
Several attorneys said they weren't surprised by the ruling either, noting the level of evidence required to send someone to trial is much lower than that required for a criminal conviction.