LOS ANGELES — The unschooled and illiterate former mayor of the scandal-ridden suburban city of Bell had no training that would have alerted him that his huge salary was illegal, his lawyer told a jury in closing arguments Thursday.
Former Mayor Oscar Hernandez didn’t have a college or high school degree and didn’t even finish elementary school, defense attorney Stanley Friedman said at the corruption trial.
Hernandez is among six former Bell city officials charged with misappropriating funds. He was earning just under $100,000 a year for the part-time job.
Friedman argued that financial advisers hired by the city could have informed Hernandez that salaries being paid to council members were illegal, but no one did that.
“They didn’t say, ‘Stop in the name of the law. These salaries are illegal,’” the lawyer said.
Hernandez was known around town for having a big heart and being willing to listen to everyone’s problems, and like many other politicians of simple backgrounds, he wasn’t required to be scholarly to be mayor, the lawyer said.
“We elect people who have a good heart. Someone who can listen to your problems and look you in the eye,” Friedman said. “There are a lot of elected officials who may not be the most scholarly. We had a vice president of the United States who didn’t know how to spell potato.”
Friedman said former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s main qualification was “he portrayed a killer robot in the movies. And (former Minnesota Gov.) Jesse Ventura was a professional wrestler.”
Attorneys for two more defendants continued to press the theme that their clients were hurt by advisers, including the city attorney, who failed to tell them their salaries were illegal.
Attorney Leo Moriarty, representing Victor Bello, compared himself and his client to Don Quixote, being persecuted while fighting for justice. But he said prosecutors too were tilting at windmills, “fighting an imaginary evil that does not exist.”
He said that when Bello left his job on the council, he wasn’t aware he had done anything wrong and went on to a job as an administrator of the city-funded food bank, earning $100,000 a year, the same salary he had on the council.
In prosecutors’ closing arguments on Wednesday, they said the six officials facing charges of misappropriating funds felt they were above the law and collected paychecks for jobs that didn’t exist.
Legally, the officials could have paid themselves $673 a month for what was a part-time job, since they didn’t actually run the city, Deputy District Attorney Ed Miller said. But in addition to their inflated council salaries, the officials appointed each other to commissions that did nothing and often met yearly just to increase their pay, he said. Some made $100,000 a year.
George Mgdesyan, representing Luis Artiga, said his client had been on the council less than two years and “didn’t know what boards he was getting paid for.”
He said Artiga learned the ropes by attending City Council meetings.
“He sees at every meeting how it works. … He thought this was a full-time job,” the attorney said.
In the midst of a national economic meltdown, the council members were drawing salaries 3 1/2 times that of the median income of a resident in the blue-collar town, the prosecutor said.
But defense attorneys insisted they saw no problem with the compensation.
“If Mr. Artiga made what Mr. Rizzo was making – $800,000 a year, he should have known something was not right,” Mgdesyan said, referring to Bell’s now notorious former city manager, Robert Rizzo. Rizzo and his assistant city manager, Angela Spaccia, face a trial later in the year.
Lawyers for two other defendants spoke on Wednesday, portraying their clients George Cole and Teresa Jacobo as dedicated city leaders devoted to helping the poor.
All defense attorneys who have spoken so far say their clients worked many more hours than required.
One more defense closing argument remains before the prosecutor is to reply. The case will then be placed in the hands of the jury.
If convicted of various counts of misappropriation of funds, they could face sentences ranging from 11 to 20 years in prison.
After disclosure of the scandal in 2010, Bell residents revolted and turned out in the thousands to protest at City Council meetings. They ultimately staged a successful recall election in 2011, throwing out the entire council and electing a slate of new leaders.
An audit by the state controller’s office determined Bell had illegally raised property taxes, business license fees and other sources of revenue to pay the salaries and ordered the money repaid.