Convicted Former Bell Officials Face Civil Case
(CN) - As jurors convicted former top officials in Bell, Calif., of stealing public money by giving themselves six-figure salaries, a California appeals court renewed a civil case demanding restitution.
A Los Angeles jury on Wednesday convicted five of six former council members of looting the city's coffers in a criminal trial that ended in a fractured verdict.
Oscar Hernandez, Victor Bello, George Cole, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal were convicted on multiple felony counts, while jurors remained deadlocked on about half the counts.
One former city councilman, Luis Artiga, was acquitted on all 12 charges against him. Artiga's lawyer had argued that Artiga was appointed to the city council long after his colleagues voted to raise their own pay, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Four of Bell's five city council members made $100,000 a year for their part-time positions. Bell's former city administrator, Robert Rizzo, had a $787,500 base salary in 2010, but pulled in more than $1.1 million after cashing in his unused vacation days and sick leave.
Under state law, a city with about 40,000 residents should have paid its council members no more than $400 per month. Instead, their salaries were $8,000 per month.
Bell also paid former Police Chief Randy Adams more than $457,000 a year -- more than double the salary of New York City's police commissioner.
Bell is one of the poorest cities in Los Angeles County.
The former officials of the small Los Angeles suburb made national headlines for their exorbitant pay after the Times broke the story in 2010.
"It became clear that legal action should be taken," the appellate court wrote. "However, as the city was still under the control of apparently corrupt officials, the city brought no action against them."
As a result, then-California Attorney General Jerry Brown Jr. sued the former council members, Rizzo, Spaccia and Adams for restitution. (Brown is now the state's governor, and Kamala Harris has succeeded him as attorney general.)
Rizzo, Spaccia and Adams all resigned amid the public outcry, and the others were replaced in a recall election. Bell's new leadership supported the attorney general's right to sue on its behalf.
The trial court dismissed the lawsuit, citing legislative immunity and the separation of powers doctrine.
Justices in Division Three of the Second Appellate District disagreed in their ruling Wednesday.
"[W]e conclude that the attorney general does have standing to pursue this action on behalf of the city," Justice H. Walter Croskey wrote for the panel. The court said Harris may "seek recovery from the corrupt individuals to the extent their acts were unauthorized."
The justices explained that while separation of powers and legislative immunity apply "with respect to acts within the discretion of city officials," these doctrines do not protect acts committed "ultra vires," or beyond the scope of the officials' power. (Emphasis in original.)
Rizzo and Spaccia will be tried later this year.
The five convicted defendants face punishment ranging from probation to up to eight years in jail, the Times reports.
Jurors in the criminal case were ordered to return to court Thursday, possibly to further deliberate on the undecided charges.