Bell, California officials in court on corruption charges

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Eight current and former officials of the city of Bell arrived in court Monday for a preliminary hearing to determine if there is sufficient evidence to try them on charges of looting the working-class Los Angeles suburb of $5.5 million.

Meanwhile, a prosecutor confirmed that attorneys for six of the eight have had preliminary discussions about reaching a possible plea bargain.

The eight — including the mayor, vice mayor and former city manager — are named in dozens of counts of misappropriation of public funds in a scandal that District Attorney Steve Cooley described as “corruption on steroids” on the day they were taken from their homes in handcuffs last September. Former City Manager Robert Rizzo is also charged with falsifying public documents in an effort to hide the scandal.

Outside court, Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Lentz Snyder confirmed prosecutors had discussed a possible plea bargain with attorneys for all of the officials except Rizzo and former Deputy City Manager Angela Spaccia. Snyder declined to discuss possible terms of the deal, saying the talks were only preliminary.

“We have been contacted about a possible disposition in this case,” she said. “We have provided a response.”

Rizzo, the former Bell city manager who was paid an annual salary and compensation package of $1.5 million a year, faces the most charges — more than 50 counts.

Others charged are Mayor Oscar Hernandez, Vice Mayor Teresa Jacobo, Councilman George Mirabal, former Mayor George Cole, former Councilman Luis Artiga, former Councilman Victor Bello and former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia.

Spaccia received an annual salary of $376,288 and the mayor and council members were paid about $100,000 a year for their part-time service to the city of about 40,000 people. Hernandez, Jacobo and Mirabal all face a March 8 recall election.

Authorities have said Rizzo was the ringleader of a scandal that went unchecked for years in which officials illegally paid themselves the huge salaries as well as made low-interest, unapproved loans to themselves and other city employees who ranged from high-ranking police officers to rank-and-file recreation attendants.

The money, according to local and state officials, came from property taxes and business license fees that had been raised illegally, as well as other funds, such as gas taxes, that were never intended for such use. The result, according to a recent report from Bell’s interim city manager, is that Bell is as much as $4.5 million in debt and on the brink of bankruptcy.

All eight defendants appeared briefly before Superior Court Judge Upinder S. Karla on Monday and agreed to have the cases brought against them combined for one preliminary hearing, which is expected to last at least a week.

All have pleaded not guilty and all but Bello are free on bail. He appeared in court in an orange jail jumpsuit, the others in business attire.

The scandal came to light last summer when the Los Angeles Times reported on the salaries of Rizzo and others, prompting outrage in the blue-collar city just east of Los Angeles where one in six people live in poverty.

The Associated Press

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Corruption trial begins for former New Orleans politician Gill Pratt

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Former New Orleans councilwoman and Louisiana state rep. Renee Gill Pratt is heading to court this week in her racketeering and corruption trial. Gill Pratt is accused of conspiring with several family members of her mentor, U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, to loot three bogus non-profits they controlled of more than $1 million in taxpayer monies.

Gill Pratt, 56, was a member of the state House from 1991 to 2002 and a New Orleans councilwoman from 2002 through 2006.

She is accused of helping secure $1 million in public funds for three bogus non-profits, which then distributed the monies to members of former U.S Rep. William Jefferson's family.

Two principal figures in the scheme, Jefferson’s sister Betty Johnson and her daughter, Angela Coleman, pleaded guilty last year to charges of mail fraud, money laundering, tax evasion and aggravated identity theft. Both women are expected to be the prosecutor’s key witnesses against Gill Pratt.

Another defendant in the conspiracy, Mose Jefferson, brother to Betty and William, is currently serving a ten-year prison sentence on a bribery conviction in another case. Mose is also the former boyfriend of Gill Pratt.

The case covers a period of 15 years, during which the defendants, described collectively by prosecutors as a “criminal enterprise,” obtained government funds for non-profits to benefit the poor, and then diverted the funds for their own use. Authorities say that Gill Pratt’s lead role was to obtain city and state funding for the non-profits. She is also accused of helping launder the monies.

Once William Jefferson and Gill Pratt steered the public funds to the non-profits, Betty Jefferson, Coleman, and Jefferson sister Brenda Foster, now deceased, wrote checks to themselves, family members and companies they controlled. In some instances, funds were used to bankroll improvements on properties owned by family members.

Prosecutors also accused Gill Pratt of corruption charges for misusing city vehicles and defrauding taxpayers on rents she paid for a satellite office in a building owned by Mose Jefferson.

After Hurricane Katrina, DaimlerChrysler donate vehicles to the city for its recovery efforts, and Gill Pratt claimed four of them as her own. The vehicles were used personally by Gill Pratt, Mose Jefferson and other relatives and friends, even though they all knew the vehicles were to be used exclusively for the recovery effort.

When she lost her bid for another term in city council in May 2006, Gill Pratt transferred the titles in all the vehicles to Care Unlimited and another bogus non-profit controlled by the Jeffersons. After the matter became public, she bowed to public outrage and returned all the vehicles.

While she was a councilwoman, prosecutors accused Gill Pratt of using city funds to rent a satellite office in a building secretly owned by Mose Jefferson. Over a three year period, she paid over $70,000 to rent one of the eight suites in the building, even though Jefferson had only paid $10,000 to purchase the entire building.

If convicted, Gill Pratt could get up to 20 years in prison.

In November 2009, William Jefferson was sentenced to 13 years in prison on a bribery conviction, the longest sentence ever handed down to a congressman for any type of crime. He is free on bail while appealing the conviction.

Information from: The Times-Picayune

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Florida politician arrested on corruption charges for aiding developer

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The former vice mayor of Fort Lauderdale, Cindi Hutchinson, 53, was arrested on Friday and charged with corruption in trading political favors for over $14,000 of gifts from a real estate developer seeking zoning changes.

Broward County prosecutors charged Hutchinson with three counts of unlawful compensation, four counts of official misconduct, and one count each of grand theft, petty theft, conspiracy to commit unlawful compensation, and perjury.

The charges center on Hutchinson’s involvement in the rezoning of land owned by controversial developer Glenn Wright, in 2003 and 2004. At the time, Wright was seeking a zoning change on land that would enable him to build large luxury-style homes in an area that was near much smaller homes.

While Hutchinson was serving on the city commission that was responsible for granting the approvals, prosecutors say that Wright’s business partner, Steve Goldstrom, ordered subcontractors to make improvements at the Edgewood home shared by Hutchinson and her mother.

Goldstrom, 54, a former manager of exotic car business, The Toy Store, was also arrested on Friday and charged with one count of perjury.

Authorities say that subcontractors installed a new toilet, a surround sound system, special pool lighting, fencing, pavers and performed air conditioning repair work.  The improvements were done after Hutchinson voted to grant Wright the zoning changes on his La Preserve and Georgian Oaks developments.

Prosecutors said that when investigators asked about the work done at her home, she lied about it and denied knowing any of Wright’s business associates.

Bruce Udolf, Hutchinson’s lawyer, said she will fight the charges. “Any work that was done was a personal favor between friends and there was absolutely no quid pro quo. Any favors that were done for her by her friends were not given in exchange for an official act.”

Hutchinson, a registered Democrat, was on the city commission for nine years until she termed out in March 2009. While on the commission, critics said that she used her elected position to solicit monies for charity from people that had business with the city. Because of her actions, the city passed a law in 2007 prohibiting elected officials from the practice.

more at The Miami Herald

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North Miami mayor admits to handing out official police-like badges to “city volunteers”

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At a city council meeting Tuesday evening, North Miami Andre Pierre apologized to the audience for ordering 43 police-like badges, inscribed “Mayor’s Staff”, which cost taxpayers $4,151.

Last week, The Miami Herald first reported the story, in which Pierre claimed that he couldn’t remember how many he ordered, and how many he handed out. The trouble with the badges, is that the mayor’s staff consists of three person, all of whom he shares with city council members.

After the council meeting, Pierre said that he provided a badge to each of the staff members, and an undisclosed number to “city volunteers,” although he refused to mention any names. He also refused to answer questions why he ordered them in the first place.

Pierre bypassed the city manager when purchasing the badges, instead asking Police Chief, Stephen Johnson, to order them. The badges are similar to a law enforcement shield and feature the Florida state seal.

At the council meeting, Pierre repeated an earlier contention that the request should have not been mistaken as an order to purchase the badges. “I never gave him a command,” said Pierre.

Critics blasted Pierre for spending taxpayer monies on the badges, which might easily be mistaken for law enforcement shields. They say the badges could be used to obtain favors or intimidate citizens.

City Manager Russell Benford was not aware of the badges until contacted by the media last week. He said he’s asked Pierre to retrieve the badges.

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Dallas politician blocks release of police record of disturbance at his home

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City hall lawyers in Dallas have blocked a public records request, from The Dallas Morning News, for records and documents relating to the police department’s visit to the home of Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway, saying that they might be “highly intimate or embarrassing” and are “no interest to the public.”

City attorneys instead ordered the police department to refrain from releasing the files, and asked the Texas Attorney General’s office for an opinion on whether they should comply with the request.

The newspaper earlier requested and received a copy of basic police report that provided little in the way of details about why the police were called on Jan. 2 to a disturbance at the home of Caraway and his wife, state Rep. Barbara Mallory Caraway, although the report said it was a “marital disturbance.”

Later, Caraway said that the incident had nothing to do with him and his wife, but instead was caused by a disagreement between two friends, identified as “Arthur and Archie,” who were arguing over the Dallas Cowboys vs. Philadelphia Eagles game.

Caraway briefly addressed the issue once again at a city council meeting, saying that police responded to a marital dispute, contradicting his earlier statement.

City lawyers, in seeking to withhold release of the records are citing common law rights of privacy, contending the information could be withheld if it contains “highly intimate or embarrassing facts” and is “no legitimate concern to the public.”

The DMN, in a letter to the state’s attorney general, argued that the matter is of legitimate concern to the general public, because Caraway is in line for the mayor’s office, if current Mayor Tom Leppert decides to step down and run for the U.S. Senate. Should Caraway become mayor, the public would have the right to expect that a person in that position would act with honesty and integrity.

The letter points out that Caraway did not handle the matter as a private citizen, but as an official of city hall. Instead of placing a call to the police department like any ordinary citizen, he made a direct call to the Chief of Police. And instead of patrol officers responding, a team of elite special investigators were sent.

Later, when a public records request was made for the police documents, instead of acting on his own as a private citizen, Caraway ordered city lawyers to intercede. He also used time at a city council meeting to attempt to dismiss the matter.

For all these reasons, the incident is no longer a personal one, but one in which he involved the city from the very beginning, according to Joel White, a First Amendment attorney for the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

“Either this is a public matter or it’s an entirely personal matter, and he’s trying to make it both,” White said. “No. 1, you lied about it. That clearly reflects on his qualifications to hold public office. And second, if he didn’t think that, then why is he making it an issue at a City Council meeting?”

The Dallas Morning News

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Boston politician Chuck Turner sentenced to 3 years behind bars for bribery

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Former Boston Councilor Chuck Turner, who was convicted in October for taking a $1,000 bribe from an undercover FBI agent in 2008, was sentenced today to three years in prison by U.S. District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock.

Turner, 70, could have received a sentence for as much as 35 years, although his defense team asked for no-prison sentence, pointing to his more than 40 years of community service.

Boston Councilor Chuck Turner was sentenced today to 3 years in prison for taking a $1,000 bribe to help secure a liquor license. (photo The Boston Herald)

Turner was caught in an FBI sting, during which he was recorded on video taking a $1,000 bribe from businessman-turned-FBI informant Ronald Wilburn. During his trial, Turner said he didn’t remember if he looked at the cash changing hands and referred to it as a “preacher’s handshake.”

Around the same time, another prominent African American politician was also taken down by Wilburn and the FBI. Former State Senator Diane Wilkerson took $23,500 in bribes for agreeing to help Wilburn obtain a liquor license for a nightclub he was purportedly planning, and for her influence on a property development deal.

Wilkerson pleaded guilty to eight counts of attempted extortion and was sentenced two weeks ago to 3 ½ years in prison.

The Harvard-educated Turner began his career in politics as a community activist in Boston’s South End, fighting for better housing conditions for poor residents. He was first elected to the Boston City Council in 1999 running on the Green-Rainbow ticket, and representing District 7.

Even though he was under indictment for bribery when he ran for re-election in 2009, his popularity with voters helped him easily retain his seat.

After a jury convicted him of bribery, the city council voted him out of his seat earlier this month, but Turner refused to go quietly. Turner filed a civil lawsuit against the city claiming it had no authority to remove him from office.

U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said of the sentencing, “Mr. Turner was sentenced to prison today because of the choices he made and the actions he took during the course of this case. It is the obligation of every elected official to be ethical and honest, and in this case, Mr. Turner was neither. Public corruption is more than a violation of the law, it erodes the public’s trust in the very system that was designed to protect us.”

In addition to the prison sentence, the Judge Woodlock ordered Turner to return the $1,000 bribe monies.

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Florida mayor purchases official badges with no decent explanation

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The same mayor who in the last year forgot who gave him a $100,000 sports sedan to drive, and who forgot to turn over relief monies to Haitian earthquake victims, now says he can’t remember why he ordered dozens of expensive official looking police-style badges.

North Miami Mayor Andre Pierre claims he purchased the badges for his staff. One of the badges was inscribed “City Clerk” while another 43 badges have the words “Mayor’s Staff” and feature the Florida state seal.

The issue critics say, is that the mayor shares a staff of only three people, with city council. Police chief Stephen Johnson said that he ordered the badges at the mayor’s request.

Invoices show that 20 badges and cases were delivered to police headquarters on Aug. 16, and another 24 on Nov. 5. According to the invoices, the total cost amounted to $4,151.

When reached for a comment by the Miami Herald, Pierre said, “My staff uses them as credentials at official events. I don’t know if the city-issued IDs are really official credentials.”

Pierre said he doesn’t remember how many he handed out, but he says that the remaining ones are in a box in his office. He also claims that he only asked for and received 20 badges.

Johnson said that it’s possible that the second set of badges is somewhere at police headquarters, and that he may possibly have ordered them by mistake. “I don’t know where they are. I don’t know why they need badges. I’m the new chief. If someone asks me to order badges, I order badges,” he said.

Pierre claims that even though he talked to Johnson about getting official badges, he didn’t actually order him to purchase them. “I had a conversation with the chief. It wasn’t an order I gave to the chief,” Pierre said. “The chief didn’t have to order them if he didn’t want to.”

Meanwhile the city manager, Russell Benford has scheduled a meeting with Johnson to determine why the badges were ordered in the first place, and where they are.

Upon learning of the badges, city council members expressed concern that so many badges that look just like police badges, were ordered for no good reason.

`There’s no reason for us to have it,” said Councilman Scott Galvin who stopped accepting his city-issued badge in 2001. “This opens up all sorts of Pandora’s boxes for abuse and misuse.”

Miami Herald

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