March 21, 2013

By JOHN ROGERS Associated Press

 

Five former elected officials in a small, blue-collar California city who became a national symbol of municipal greed were convicted Wednesday of stealing taxpayer money by serving on a panel that evidence showed was created only to boost their annual salaries to nearly $100,000.

Former Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez and onetime City Council members Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal, George Cole and Victor Bello were all convicted of misappropriating public funds.

Former Councilman Luis Artiga was acquitted of all charges. The pastor of Bell Community Church broke down in tears and pointed heavenward as the not guilty verdicts were read.

"I said, 'Thank you, Lord,'" a beaming Artiga, surrounded by his wife and four children, said outside court. "I never lost faith. I knew it, I just knew it."

After the four-week trial, the other defendants were convicted of illegally taking money for sitting on Bell's Solid Waste and Recycling Authority, an entity they could not prove had been legally established or did any work.

Records showed it met only one time between 2006 and 2010.

After the verdicts were read, Judge Kathleen Kennedy noted there were 10 deadlocked counts and asked the foreman if the panel had exhausted efforts to reach decisions.

He said that was correct, explaining the jury had split 9-3 on each of those counts. He did not reveal if the panel favored conviction.

Kennedy polled all 12 jurors, and four said they believed a verdict could be reached if they received more direction. Kennedy ordered them to resume deliberations then sent them home later in the day. The panel will return to court on this week.

At the heart of the case was whether the six officials broke the law by paying themselves annual salaries of up to $100,000 to govern only part-time in the city of 36,000 people where one in four residents live below the poverty line.

An audit by the state controller's office found the city had illegally raised property taxes, business license fees and other sources of revenue to pay the salaries. The office ordered the money repaid, which for a time put Bell in danger of filing for bankruptcy.

The defendants, many of whom took the witness stand during the trial, insisted they earned their salaries by working around the clock to help residents. Their lawyers blamed Bell's disgraced former city manager, Robert Rizzo, for creating the fiscal mess.Rizzo and his former assistant, Angela Spaccia, are expected to face trial later this year on similar charges.

City records have revealed that Rizzo had an annual salary and compensation package worth $1.5 million, making him one of the highest paid administrators in the country.

His salary alone was about $800,000 a year — double that of the president of the United States.

To fund salaries of officials, Rizzo masterminded a scheme to loot Bell's treasury of $5.5 million, prosecutors said.

Witnesses at the trial of the former council members depicted Rizzo as a micro-manager who convinced the city's elected officials that they too deserved huge salaries.

He was said to have manipulated council members into signing major financial documents, particularly Hernandez who does not read English and, according to his lawyer, was often unaware of what he was signing.

After the scandal was disclosed, thousands of Bell residents protested at City Council meetings and staged a successful recall election to throw out the entire council and elect new leaders.

Current Mayor Ali Saleh, a leader of the recall, hailed the guilty verdicts on Wednesday but said residents won't be truly satisfied until Rizzo and Spaccia are tried.

"Our community will rest when the legal process has come full circle and justice has been served," he said.

Hernandez, whose family members wept after the verdicts, was convicted of five counts of misappropriating public funds, as were Jacobo and Mirabal. Bello was convicted of four of the same charges and Cole of two.

Prosecutors declined to comment on possible sentences for the defendants until all the charges have been resolved.

Prosecutors brought an extensive, complicated case against all six defendants that totaled about 100 counts.

The jury had deliberated since Feb. 28 after one member of a previous panel was replaced and the judge told the reconstituted group of 12 to start over.

The trial was the first court proceeding following disclosures of massive corruption in the hardscrabble town of modest homes and few businesses.

The defendants' lawyers told jurors their clients had no idea what Rizzo was doing or that what they were doing was illegal.

Jacobo testified that when Rizzo told her that he was increasing her salary enough that she could quit her job selling real estate, she asked the former city attorney if that was legal and he assured her it was.

Hernandez's lawyer said the once popular mayor, who ran a small grocery store in Bell, was unschooled and not one who understood the city's finances.

"We elect people who have a good heart. Someone who can listen to your problems and look you in the eye," attorney Stanley Friedman had told jurors.

Parent Category: ROOT
Category: News

March 14, 2013

By FELICIA FONSECA | Associated Press

 

American Indian tribes have tried everything from banishment to charging criminal acts as civil offenses to deal with non-Indians who commit crimes on reservations.

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that tribal courts lack criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians, tribes have had to get creative in trying to hold that population accountable. They acknowledge, though, that those approaches aren’t much of a deterrent, and say most crimes committed by non-Indians on tribal land go unpunished.

Tribal leaders are hoping that will change, at least in part, with a federal bill signed into law Thursday March 7. The measure gives tribes the authority to prosecute non-Indians for a set of crimes limited to domestic violence and violations of protecting orders.

Implementation of the Violence Against Women Act will take time as tribes amend their legal codes and ensure defendants receive the same rights offered in state and federal courts. But proponents say it’s a huge step forward in the face of high rates of domestic violence with no prosecution.

“For a tribal nation, it’s just absurd that (authority) doesn’t exist,” said Sheri Freemont, director of the Family Advocacy Center on the Salt River Pima Maricopa reservation in Arizona. “People choose to either work, live or play in Indian Country. I think they should be subject to Indian Country rules.”

Native American women suffer incidents of domestic violence at rates more than double national averages. But more than half of cases involving non-Indians go unprosecuted because Indian courts have lacked jurisdiction and because federal prosecutors often have too few resources to try cases on isolated reservations.

Still, the tribal courts provision was a major point of contention in Congress, with some Republicans arguing that subjecting non-Indians to Indian courts was unconstitutional.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said after its passage that the bill denies basic protections and will be tied up in court challenges for years.

“It violates constitutional rights of individuals and would, for the first time ever, proclaim Indian tribes’ ‘inherent’ authority to exercise criminal jurisdiction over non-Indian citizens,” Hastings said in a statement. “The Supreme Court has ruled multiple times that tribes do not have this authority.”

The U.S. Department of Justice met with tribal leaders last Wednesday to discuss implementing the provisions, which will take effect two years after the law is enacted. A pilot project would allow any tribe that believes it has met the requirements to request an earlier start date.

To ease concerns that the new authority would violate the constitutional rights of a non-Indian or that jurors in tribal court would be unfair, the bill allows defendants to petition a federal court for review. A tribe would have jurisdiction over non-Indians when that person lives or works on the reservation, and is married to or in a partnership with a tribal member.

About 77 percent of people living in American Indian and Alaska Native areas are non-Indian, according to a recent Census report. Roughly half of Native American women are married to non-Indians, the Justice Department has said.

Although tribes have civil jurisdiction over non-Indians, they often are reluctant to go forward with a case when the penalty amounts to a fine and offenders have little incentive to pay it. The hope in taking on criminal cases is that incidents of domestic violence will be quelled before they lead to serious injury or death, and that victims won’t be afraid to report them.

“Having the ability to do it local and have the prosecution start soon after the offense, that’s just going to be great for our victims,” said Fred Urbina, chief prosecutor for the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in southern Arizona.

Officers there are certified under state and federal law, which allows them to arrest non-Indians, but the cases aren't handled at the tribal level. The Pascua Yaqui Tribe also has banished some non-Indians from the reservation for criminal activity.

“It’s almost like a patchwork of things we’ve been able to employ to fix that jurisdictional void,” Urbina said. “It’s not satisfactory in all cases.”

Under the new law, a non-Indian defendant would have the right to a jury trial that is drawn from a cross-section of the community and doesn’t systematically exclude non-Indians or other distinctive groups. The protections would equal those in state or federal court, including the right to a public defender, a judge who is licensed to practice law, a recording of the proceedings and published laws and rules of criminal procedure.

“This is not scary. It’s not radical,” said Troy Eid, former U.S. attorney in Colorado. “It’s very much in keeping with what we have as local governments.”

The safeguards are similar to those in the federal Tribal Law and Order Act, passed in 2010 to improve public safety on tribal lands.

About 30 tribes across the country are working toward a provision that allows them to increase sentencing from one year to three years, leaving them well-positioned to take authority over non-Indians in criminal matters, Eid said.

Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said in a statement that much work remains to be done to ensure tribal members are protected from domestic violence. But he said last Thursday’s bill signing represents a “historic moment in the nation-to-nation relationships” between tribes and the federal government.

“Today is a great day, because it marks the beginning of justice and the end to injustice that has gone unanswered for too long,” Keel said.

Parent Category: ROOT
Category: News

March 14, 2013

Associated Press

 

Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was convicted Monday of corruption charges, ensuring a return to prison for a man once among the nation's youngest big-city leaders.

Jurors convicted Kilpatrick of a raft of crimes, including a racketeering conspiracy charge. He was portrayed during a five-month trial as an unscrupulous politician who took bribes, rigged contracts and lived far beyond his means while in office until fall 2008.

Prosecutors said Kilpatrick ran a "private profit machine" out of Detroit's City Hall. The government presented evidence to show he got a share of the spoils after ensuring that Bobby Ferguson's excavating company was awarded millions in work from the water department.

Business owners said they were forced to hire Ferguson as a subcontractor or risk losing city contracts. Separately, fundraiser Emma Bell said she gave Kilpatrick more than $200,000 as his personal cut of political donations, pulling cash from her bra during private meetings. A high-ranking aide, Derrick Miller, told jurors that he often was the middle-man, passing bribes from others.

Internal Revenue Service agents said Kilpatrick spent $840,000 beyond his mayoral salary.

Ferguson, Kilpatrick's pal, was also convicted of a racketeering conspiracy charge. The jury could not reach a verdict on the same charge for Kilpatrick's father, Bernard Kilpatrick, but convicted him of submitting a false tax return.

Kwame Kilpatrick, who now lives near Dallas, declined to testify. He has long denied any wrongdoing, and defense attorney James Thomas told jurors that his client often was showered with cash gifts from city workers and political supporters during holidays and birthdays.

The government said Kilpatrick abused the Civic Fund, a nonprofit fund he created to help distressed Detroit residents. There was evidence that it was used for yoga lessons, camps for his kids, golf clubs and travel.

Kilpatrick, 42, was elected in 2001 at age 31. He resigned in 2008 and pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in a different scandal involving sexually explicit text messages and an extramarital affair with his chief-of-staff.

The Democrat spent 14 months in prison for violating probation in that case after a judge said he failed to report assets that could be put toward his $1 million restitution to Detroit.

Voters booted his mother, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, from Congress in 2010, partly because of a negative perception of her due to her son's troubles.

Parent Category: ROOT
Category: News

March 14, 2013

By Darlene Superville

Associated Press

 

Michelle Obama challenged America’s top CEOs on Wednesday to “think outside the box” and hire more veterans.

The first lady said that, while declines in overall unemployment are encouraging, joblessness among the 9/11 generation of veterans — those who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — is nearly two points higher than the national average, at 9.4 percent. She said that figure means that about 200,000 veterans don’t have jobs, not including their spouses and those who will return home after the U.S. ends its combat mission in Afghanistan.

Unemploy­ment nationwide fell two-tenths of a point last month to 7.7 percent, its lowest level in more than four years.

Addressing a meeting of the Business Roundtable, which represents chief executive officers of the 200 largest U.S. corporations, Mrs. Obama said the “Joining Forces” campaign she launched two years ago with Jill Biden, the vice president's wife, to rally the country around its military members, has led businesses to hire or train more than 125,000 veterans and military spouses. The private sector also has pledged to hire or train 250,000 more veterans by the end of 2014.

But, the first lady said, “we’ve still got a lot more work to do.”

“Whether you’re in finance or technology or the food industry, every single one of you can ask yourselves that same question: ‘What more can we do?’” she said. “So today, I want to challenge all the members of the Business Roundtable to answer that question for your business.”

“Think outside the box, take real risks and work together to make big, bold commitments to hire our veterans and military spouses and help them reach their full potential within your companies. Show them that your business is there for them for the long haul,” the first lady said.

In challenging the CEOs, Mrs. Obama highlighted Wal-Mart’s pledge this year to hire more than 100,000 veterans in the next five years as part of its plan to help jumpstart the economy. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is the world’s largest retailer and biggest ­private employer in the U.S. with 1.4 million workers.

Wal-Mart also has made an open-ended commitment to hire any honorably discharged veteran who is still looking for a job a year after they leave the military and wants to work for the retailer.

Separately, UPS said Wednesday that it will hire more than 25,000 veterans over the next five years and commit more than 25,000 employee volunteer hours to helping veterans and the organizations that serve them.

In her remarks, Mrs. Obama disclosed that vice presidents and human resource professionals from Business Roundtable companies met with White House officials last week to talk about how to find people with the particular skills needed at their businesses.

Parent Category: ROOT
Category: News

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