LOS ANGELES (AP) — A former assistant city manager of the corruption-riddled city of Bell used a secret formula concocted by her and her one-time boss to take millions of dollars from city coffers — a scheme that wasn't discovered until they were forced to publicly disclose their earnings, a prosecutor said Wednesday.
Showing a series of emails, contracts and other documents, Deputy District Attorney Max Huntsman told a jury in his opening statement that defendant Angela Spaccia, 55, boosted her own salary and gave herself additional benefits for several years unbeknownst to the public.
By the time Spaccia and her former boss, ex-Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo, were arrested three years ago, Huntsman said, they had been making more than $560,000 and nearly $1.2 million, respectively, in annual salaries, loans and accrued sick and vacation days.
"That was the end of the gravy train," Huntsman said.
Spaccia is on trial on 13 counts, including misappropriation of funds. If convicted, she could face up to 16 years in state prison. She has pleaded not guilty.
Rizzo, who has been depicted as the mastermind of the brazen municipal corruption scandal that drove the working-class Los Angeles suburb to the brink of bankruptcy, recently pleaded no contest to 69 counts of fraud, conflict of interest and other charges. In agreeing to testify against Spaccia and other former city officials, he will likely be sentenced to no more than 10 to 12 years in prison instead of a possible maximum of 70 years.
Huntsman said Spaccia's involvement in the corruption scheme was documented in her own words.
In a 2009 email exchange with incoming Police Chief Randy Adams, Spaccia promised him they will enrich themselves as long as they don't get too greedy.
"I am looking forward to seeing you and taking all of Bell's money," Adams wrote to Spaccia in an email shown in court.
"We will all get fat together," Spaccia responded. "Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. So as long as we're not hogs all is well."
Spaccia also tells Adams in another email: "We have crafted our agreements carefully so we do not draw attention to our pay."
Adams was never charged in the case. However, five former Bell council members were convicted last March of fraud charges after jurors found the one-time officials paid themselves six-figure salaries for sitting on boards and commissions that did no work.
One council member was acquitted, and some charges that jurors couldn't decide on remain for another trial.
Spaccia's attorney, Harland Braun, said his client thought her annual salary was legitimate because Rizzo told her it was.
Braun said Wednesday that Spaccia's arrest three years ago was politically motivated, as then-Attorney General Jerry Brown and ex-Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley seized upon the scandal months before an election. Brown is now California's governor; Cooley lost a bid to become the state's attorney general to Kamala Harris.
Braun cited a transcript in which one of the case investigators tells a former co-worker of Spaccia that the probe may have been fast-tracked because of the upcoming election.
"A trial should be about the truth, not about politics," Braun said.
He added it would be difficult to believe Spaccia could have taken part in the alleged corruption because she had taken off months at a time to tend to an ailing grandfather and a son injured in a motorcycle accident.
Braun said Spaccia will testify during the trial. He portrayed her, like many others, as a victim of Rizzo's reign, calling the case against his client "a terrible miscarriage of justice."
She would rather go to prison and tell the truth than lie for Rizzo, Braun said.
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.
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.