In a surprise ending to an unusual political corruption case, a judge Wednesday dismissed a felony count against a former Bell Gardens councilwoman after prosecutors, just before the trial's start, decided not to proceed.
Maria S. Chacon was accused of orchestrating her appointment -- through influence peddling and votes -- to the high-paying post of city manager.
The prosecutors' case collapsed after Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson ruled that Chacon could raise a novel entrapment defense.
Chacon's attorney, Michael Nasatir, was expected to argue that Chacon had no idea that she had possibly violated a law because the city attorney said her appointment was lawful.
Prosecutors, believing that such a defense would have led to a not-guilty verdict, opted to drop the charge and appeal the judge's ruling. They said it could severely undermine their ability to prosecute corruption cases in the future.
"The judge's ruling would mean that any corrupt public official could hire a city attorney to give bad, and perhaps illegal, advice that the official could then hide behind to avoid prosecution," Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said in a prepared statement.
Prosecutors did not rule out refiling charges.
Chacon, 53, was charged in June 2001 with engineering her appointment as city manager in a two-step plan. As a councilwoman, she voted to repeal a law requiring one year to elapse before an elected official could be appointed to a staff position.
Chacon then allegedly met privately with two council members and influenced them to vote for her appointment. She was appointed in late 2000 to the $80,000-per-year job.
Prosecutors accused Chacon of violating a law that prohibits elected officials from voting on matters in which they hold a financial interest.
Nasatir unveiled his defense strategy days before the start of the trial. He posed an obscure defense called entrapment by estoppel, which occurs when an official tells a defendant that certain conduct is legal, and the defendant believes the official.
In this case, Nasatir said Chacon relied on the expertise of City Atty. Arnoldo Beltran. The lawyer, Nasatir said, told Chacon that her appointment was lawful, and drafted the ordinance that made it possible.
Nasatir also argued that Beltran was an authorized law enforcement representative and mandated by law to advise City Council members on all legal matters. Had Chacon been convicted, Nasatir said, her due process rights would have been violated.
"It was done in the open; everything was aboveboard," Nasatir said. "This is a good, decent woman who did what she thought was right in the best interest of serving her city."
But prosecutors argued that a city attorney is not a law enforcement authority. If deemed so, that would open the door for corrupt elected officials to escape accountability for their actions, they said.
After the judge ruled in Chacon's favor, prosecutors decided not to proceed. Had Chacon been acquitted, an appeal would not have been possible, they said. The judge then dismissed the case.
The news drew sharply mixed reactions in the working-class community where Chacon was once the most powerful political figure.
A Mexican immigrant turned political activist, Chacon was credited with empowering Latinos but criticized for alleged nepotism and cronyism.
Interviewed after the decision, Chacon reacted with a mixture of disbelief and joy. She said she planned to celebrate with her family and supporters.
"Right now I want to hug my children and all the people that supported me, the ones that sent me flowers and tamales," she said.
"I believe in justice and I know I didn't do anything wrong," she continued. "I'm an innocent, hard-working person."
Chacon said she had yet to decide whether she would return to politics.
"I'm happy for her," said Mayor Ramiro Morales. "She has spent a lot of time in the community improving things."
But others said the city would be bracing for her return, worried that she would work to restore her power.
"This is real bad, real bad; believe me," said Rogelio Rodriguez, a former councilman who was scheduled to testify against Chacon.
"That's why sometimes I think the justice system works only for the people with the power."