(FOX 11 / AP) Until two weeks ago, Angela Spaccia was the secondary defendant in the Bell city corruption trial, a footnote to the activities of her boss, disgraced City Manager Robert Rizzo who was charged with robbing the small city blind to the tune of more nearly $6 million. Then the unthinkable happened.
On the eve of trial, with neither Spaccia nor her lawyer present, Rizzo walked into the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy and pleaded no contest - the equivalent of a guilty plea - to 69 counts of fraud, misappropriation of public funds, conflict of interest and other charges.
The man depicted as the mastermind of a brazen municipal corruption scandal that drove the modest Los Angeles suburb to the brink of bankruptcy thus dodged a trial and agreed to testify against others, including Spaccia. In return, he was told he would be sentenced to no more than 10 to 12 years in prison instead of a possible maximum of 70 years.
Spaccia's lawyer, Harland Braun, denounced what he called a "sweetheart deal" worked out by Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy. But the judge said he had no standing to object, that the Rizzo pleas didn't involve his client.
As a result, Spaccia goes to trial this week as the lone defendant on 13 counts of misappropriation of public funds, conflict of interest and other charges.
Rizzo spent 17 years as Bell city manager but only began jacking up salaries for himself and others in later years. Ultimately, he was drawing $800,000 a year as part of a compensation package worth $1.5 million a year.
Spaccia, his top assistant, was paid more than $375,000 a year plus benefits.
Her lawyer, Braun, said Spaccia now realizes she was being overpaid but at the time she thought it was legitimate because Rizzo told her it was.
"Rizzo ran the city like an authoritarian dictator and she never had any hint that what he was doing was illegal," Braun said in an interview.
"It's not a crime to be overpaid," Braun said. "It's a crime if you have authority over the money. But the authority over everything was with the city council which delegated it to Rizzo."
Bell is home to some 35,000 residents, many of whom live below the federal poverty line. After the scandal broke, they held a recall election and threw out all of the city council members. By then, Rizzo and Spaccia had been fired.
Rizzo's plea will provide a streamlined trial in which prosecutors rely heavily on emails exchanged by Spaccia and other city officials. A grand jury indictment cited one email from Spaccia to Bell Police Chief Randy Adams regarding his compensation in which she said "they would all get fat together as long as they were pigs and not hogs."
Three of the charges Spaccia faces relate to more than $300,000 in loans that Rizzo granted her.
Last March, five former Bell City Council members were convicted of fraud charges after jurors determined they paid themselves six figure salaries for sitting on boards and commissions that did no work and existed only to pay the defendants. The council members blamed Rizzo for that, saying he assured them they were doing nothing wrong. Jurors deadlocked on some charges that remain to be retried. One council member was acquitted.
The salaries came to light in 2010 after Rizzo released them to the Los Angeles Times. He had stalled the newspaper's reporters for weeks until they threatened to have their attorneys demand the documents under California public records law. The Times won a Pulitzer Prize for uncovering the scandal.
From Hal Eisner:
It was 8:20am. Defense
attorney Harland Braun was in the courthouse cafeteria talking with his client
over coffee. This would be a big morning for Angela Spaccia. The start of her
trial three years after a salary scandal exploded in the city of Bell. She was
one of eight people charged in the scandal. At the top of the list of the
accused Spaccia and former City Manager Robert Rizzo. Until a couple of weeks
ago this trial was going to The People vs Robert Rizzo and Angela Spaccia then
surprisingly Rizzo pleaded no contest to all of the 69 counts against him and
agreed to testify against Spaccia. Now, instead of the Rizzo-Spaccia Trial it
is just the Spaccia Trial. And, her attorney says she'll testify on her own
Before today's hearing I
asked Braun if he's come out of the cafeteria and talk to me on camera. He did.
He said he'd be laying out his defense to the jury pointing out his client
wasn't guilty of any wrongdoing. Sure, she made a salary that was too big for
her job, but he says that's not criminal. He also said he'd tell jurors that
she was a victim of sorts of former DA Steve Cooley who used her and the high
profile case to try and score votes with voters in his race for Attorney
General. And, that she didn't even have the authority to misappropriate public
In courtroom 109
prosecutor Max Huntsman went through a power point presentation that included
emails, text messages, graphs and pictures to simplify the complicated formula
Spaccia and Rizzo allegedly used to bilk the city and enrich themselves. He
said they misappropriated public money by "creating salaries without
lawful or public input, took loans of public money without lawful or public
input and had a conflict of interest by making her own contracts for which she
had a vested interest.
The defense had it's
turn at opening statements and now it's time for the testimony phase.