(CBS/AP) The mayor, vice mayor and four other past and present officials of the scandal-ridden city of Bell, Calif. shirked their responsibilities and sold out their constituents for financial gain, a judge said Wednesday in ordering them to stand trial on nearly two dozen charges of looting the modest, blue-collar suburb they presided over.
In a lengthy, strongly worded statement from the bench that several defense attorneys said caught them by surprise, Superior Court Judge Henry 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 the 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 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, which Hall said was about 20 times more than they were legally entitled to make.
Defense attorneys had 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 community projects that benefited low-income people, the aged and numerous others. Their clients, they said, weren't aware of what Rizzo was doing and were only singled out by prosecutors after word of the Bell salary scandal garnered nationwide attention.
"This is an unfair, politically motivated and unjust prosecution and it should stop today," Ronald Kaye, Cole's attorney, said during his closing argument.