LOS ANGELES – A former official in the Los Angeles suburb of Bell was convicted of corruption Monday in a case that drove the city to the brink of bankruptcy.
Jurors found former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia guilty of 11 charges, including conspiracy, misappropriating public funds, falsification of government records and conflict of interest.
Spaccia was acquitted of hiding a public document involving the police chief's contract. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy also declared a mistrial on another count after jurors deadlocked.
Spaccia said nothing as the verdict was read, but her mother and sister looked on, sobbing. She was taken away in handcuffs pending her sentencing next month.
She could face up to 17 years in prison but is likely to receive a much lighter sentence, said Deputy District Attorney Sean Hassett, who prosecuted the case.
"This is the most significant public corruption case our office has ever prosecuted," District Attorney Jackie Lacey said at a news conference. The Bell hierarchy committed "grand theft by paycheck," Lacey said.
She called the verdict a victory for the people of Bell, saying they were cheated out of $6 million.
Prosecutors had charged that Spaccia was deeply involved in approving enormous salaries for officials in a city where one in four residents lives below the federal poverty line — a city prosecutors described as suffering "corruption on steroids."
Spaccia, 55, testified that she knew she was making too much money when her salary exceeded $340,000, but she maintained it wasn't criminal.
She was left to stand trial alone after her former boss, Robert Rizzo, pleaded no contest to 69 corruption charges.
"She was unrepentant and refused to take any responsibility for her actions. They were thieves who used their power to steal money," Hassett said.
Spaccia began her job in 2003, and at first it appeared from the evidence that she was following Rizzo's orders "like a brainwash," juror Marco Islas said outside court. But by 2008 or 2009, things had changed.
"At the end, she knew what she was doing," Islas said.
By the end of her tenure, prosecutors said, Spaccia was making $564,000 a year in salary and other compensation. Rizzo was giving himself an annual salary and benefits package of $1.2 million. His $800,000 in wages alone was double that of the president of the United States.
Spaccia was not surprised by the verdicts because the lengthy deliberations — 10 days — led her to believe she would be found guilty of at least some charges, her attorney, Harland Braun, said outside court.
"Every judge and every jury in the Bell case wants to make an example of them," Braun said of the defendants in the corruption trials. "The overwhelming sense of the case is when you are making $500,000 a year, you should know something is wrong."
"When something seems too good to be true, it is too good to be true," Braun said. "She realizes that now."
The attorney said that Spaccia always maintained her innocence and never considered taking the same path as Rizzo, who in a plea deal acknowledged taking more than $5 million from the city.
He agreed to testify against Spaccia, but the prosecution chose not to call him as a witness.
In her testimony, Spaccia depicted Rizzo as a brilliant city manager who morphed into a greedy manipulator of people and money.
She pointed out that she was absent when most of the problems occurred, having taken months off to care for a dying grandfather and her son who was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident.
She said she became despondent and contemplated suicide after the Bell scandal broke, suffered a mental breakdown and was hospitalized for a time.
Spaccia described city employees operating under the thumb of Rizzo who controlled all contracts and salaries. Former police chief Randy Adams testified that he was surprised when his demand for a salary of $457,000 a year was granted by Rizzo without protest.
Adams depicted Spaccia as a powerless functionary who carried out Rizzo's orders.
He also identified a 2009 email exchange in which he told Spaccia, "I am looking forward to seeing you and taking all of Bell's money."
She responded, "LOL. Well you can take your share of the pie. Just like us. We will all get fat together."
She then referred to what she said was a favorite saying of Rizzo — "Pigs get fat; hogs get slaughtered" — and added they shouldn't be hogs, according to the email.
Adams testified that the comments were made in jest and had been blown out of proportion. He was not charged in the case.
Authorities said Rizzo also paid most members of the City Council about $100,000 a year, even though the panel met only about twice a month to handle matters for the city of about 35,000 people.
Last March, five former Bell City Council members were convicted of fraud charges after authorities said they paid themselves salaries for sitting on boards and commissions that did no work and existed only to pay the defendants.
Rizzo, 59, is scheduled to be sentenced March 12 and could be sent to prison for 10 to 12 years but is expected to serve about half of that. He also is under investigation by federal authorities in a tax case.