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Disgraced Bell Council Members|Blame Their Woes on Attorneys

LOS ANGELES (CN) - Five former members of the Bell City Council, who were convicted of misappropriation of public funds and other charges, have sued the city attorney and the Best, Best & Krieger law office, blaming them for bad advice.

The Superior Court complaint against Edward W. Lee and Best, Best & Krieger includes charges of legal malpractice, breach of fiduciary duty and breach of written contract.

Bell's financial scandal got national attention after the Los Angeles Times broke the story in 2010. The little town of 37,000 people near Los Angeles was paying City Manager Robert Rizzo $1.5 million, his assistant Angela Spaccia more than $500,000, and the City Council members more than $100,000 a year. The fat salaries were paid through questionable city policies, including paying council members to be on boards and committees that seldom, if ever, met.

After a long investigation and trial, the five former Council members Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo, George Cole, George Mirabal and Victor Bello were found guilty in March 2013. All five are plaintiffs in the new lawsuit.

Their jury hung on some of the counts and prosecutors are considering whether to try again.

They've been offered a plea deal, according to the L.A. Times, in which they would have to pay restitution and spend up to 4 years in prison. If they do not all accept the deal, they will be sentenced individually and could get up to 8 years.

The five are also facing a civil action from the state attorney general, and their retirement benefits have been challenged by CALPERS, according to their complaint.

They face all this, according to their lawsuit, because Lee failed to give them reasonable advice in matters concerning pay and pensions.

The six-figure salaries for the council members and city staff all occurred after Bell became a charter city in 2005.

According to the complaint, Lee was instrumental in drafting the charter, including Section 502, which states: "The members of the City Council shall receive compensation for their services as may be prescribed by ordinance or resolution, but with respect to service as a council member not to exceed the amount which council members of general law cities of similar population would receive under state law."

The council members claim Lee led them to believe they could be paid separately for their work on various boards, whether the boards met or not.

They cite Sections 800 and 801 of the City Charter, which state: "The City Council may create by ordinance or resolution advisory boards or commissions as in its judgment are required, and may grant to them such powers and duties are consistent with the provisions of this charter[;]" and, "The City Council shall include in its annual budget such appropriations of funds as in its opinion are sufficient for the efficient and proper functioning of such boards and commissions."

Among the council members' transgressions were violation of open meeting laws, for which the former council members also blame Lee and Best, Best and Kreiger, claiming both "should have been familiar with the Brown Act and the requirements for placing matters on a municipality's public agenda."

Best, Best and Krieger meanwhile said it believes the complaint "is a frivolous attempt to deflect the spotlight from their own criminal actions."

The council members seek general, special and punitive damages, but the extent of the damages is unknown as they await sentencing.

Four plaintiffs are represented by Leo Moriarty of Seal Beach; Hernandez is represented by Stanley Friedman of Los Angeles.

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