April 9, 2014, 11:02 a.m.
The former mayor of working-class Bell apologized in court Wednesday as he and four ex-colleagues agreed to plead no contest to corruption charges that could send them to prison for years.
“I like to apologize to the city of Bell for my ignorance, for not being able to find out how these people did this,” Oscar Hernandez said.
Hernandez, George Cole, Teresa Jacobo, Victor Bello and George Mirabal agreed to the plea deal and will return to court separately in June and July for sentencing. While each could be sentenced up to four years in prison, the judge could be more lenient.
Each of the former politicians also is expected to be ordered to pay restitution for their crimes. The city of Bell is asking the court to order the former council members to collectively pay nearly $1 million in restitution.
Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy told the council members that in accepting the deal, they will be barred from ever seeking elected office again.
“I don't imagine any of you are planning on running for public office again, but you will be precluded from doing so,” Kennedy said.
The plea deal effectively ends the prosecution side of the Bell corruption scandal, which enveloped the small Los Angeles County city in 2010 and left it on the edge of bankruptcy.
The ex-council members were accused of drawing extraordinary salaries by serving on boards and commissions that seldom, if ever, met. By the time they were removed from office in 2010, they were making up to $100,000 a year for their part-time work.
The case was part of a much broader web of corruption in Bell in which the city’s top administrator was accused of staging a relentless raid on the city treasury by paying extreme salaries, loaning out city money and approving contracts without City Council approval.
The five council members were convicted last year of misappropriating public funds, but jurors deadlocked on other charges, leaving the defendants in the position of accepting an offer from the district attorney or risking their fates in a second trial.
Even if they were acquitted in that trial, they still faced eight years from their previous convictions.
During their trial, each insisted that they had been duped by the town’s strong-willed chief executive. One, a former steelworker, even said he was forced to accept the generous paychecks and that his protests over the size of his pay were ignored.