Ex-official gets nearly 12 years in prison for Bell, Calif. corruption scandal

One of the architects of a massive corruption scandal that nearly bankrupted the modest Los Angeles suburb of Bell was sentenced Friday to nearly 12 years in prison by a judge who called her a con artist.

Former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia was also ordered to make more than $8 million in restitution to the city of Bell.

Spaccia was convicted in December of 11 criminal counts, including misappropriation of public funds, conspiracy and falsification of government records. She was the first of seven former public officials to be sentenced for their role in a scandal that authorities say cost the small, working-class city millions of dollars.

"This was not a one-time lapse of judgment on defendant Spaccia's part; it was a criminally sophisticated conspiracy that drove the city of Bell to the edge of bankruptcy," prosecutors wrote in a memo to Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy that sought a sentence of 12 years.

The judge gave the former official who has been incarcerated since her conviction 11 years and eight months. She could have been sentenced to as many as 17 years.

Authorities said Spaccia signed off on contracts and other financial documents as part of a scandal in which millions of taxpayer dollars were illegally diverted to pay her and other top officials almost unimaginably large salaries.

One of the most damning pieces of evidence introduced at her trial were emails she exchanged with Bell's former police chief in which she told him the city's contracts were carefully crafted to avoid disclosing to the public what they were paid.

When he told her he was looking forward to "taking all of Bell's money," she replied, "LOL ... well you can take your share of the pie ... just like us. We will all get fat together."

By the time she was fired by Bell in 2010 Spaccia was making $564,000 a year and her boss, former City Manager Robert Rizzo, had a salary and compensation package of $1.5 million. Five former City Council members were each paid about $100,000 a year.

"This is the most significant public corruption case our office has ever prosecuted," District Attorney Jackie Lacey said after Spaccia was convicted.

On Wednesday, former Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez and former Council members George Cole, Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal and Victor Bello pleaded no contest to two counts each of misappropriating public funds. They face terms ranging from probation to four years in prison when they are sentenced at separate hearings in June and July.

Rizzo, who pleaded no contest to 69 counts of fraud, misappropriation of public funds and other charges, faces as many as 12 years, although his attorney has said he expects the sentence to be about 8 years.

During her trial, Spaccia testified that it was Rizzo who masterminded the scheme that nearly bankrupted the blue-collar town of 36,000 where more than a quarter of the residents live below the federal poverty line. She said she knew she was being paid a lot but didn't believe that was illegal.

An audit by the state controller's office found Bell illegally raised property taxes, business-license fees and other sources of revenue to keep the salaries flowing. At one point homeowners in Bell, where the annual median household income is about $36,000, paid higher property taxes than those living in Beverly Hills.

The breadth of the scandal, which former Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley once described as "corruption on steroids," shocked both the nation and the city.

Thousands of Bell residents organized a recall campaign after learning of the salaries and subsequently voted all of the Council members out of office.