Self-styled "gangster mayor" Omar Bradley and two other former Compton city officials were convicted on felony corruption charges Tuesday and ordered jailed amid the screams and protests of furious supporters.
The ex-mayor, former City Councilman Amen Rahh and former City Manager John D. Johnson were found guilty of misappropriating public funds and making unauthorized loans while in office. Called a flight risk by prosecutors, the three were ordered into custody to await sentencing May 7. Each faces as much as five years in prison.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 12, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Compton councilwoman -- An article and caption in Wednesday's Section A about a corruption trial involving Compton officials referred to Yvonne Arceneaux as a former city councilwoman. She is a current member of the Compton City Council.
Two other defendants in the three-month corruption trial -- former Councilwomen Delores Zurita and Yvonne Arceneaux -- were acquitted of lesser charges.
The convictions, which sparked chaos in the crowded courtroom, marked a victory for local and federal authorities pursuing public corruption probes in cities across southeast Los Angeles County.
The conviction of Bradley, who was often accused of public misconduct by his detractors but eluded the reach of authorities for years, added significant fuel to prosecutors' efforts.
"This sends a clear and unmistakable message to those in public office: Don't take the people's money and don't abuse the powers of your office," said Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley. "If you do, we will prosecute you as we continue to fight public corruption, both big and small."
Albert DeBlanc, Rahh's lawyer, questioned the wisdom of authorities who sought to make examples of the former officials and jail them for allegedly misusing small amounts of money.
"Are you willing to sacrifice individual liberties to send that message?" he asked. "Make that statement in some other kind of way."
In an impoverished city with a history of corruption and scandal, many Compton residents hailed the verdicts. Others said it marked the sad end to a flamboyant but well-intentioned politician who had spent nearly 10 years trying to help the community. Barring a successful appeal, Bradley is now barred from running for elected office in California.
Before he was handcuffed and led from the courtroom Tuesday, the bear-sized Bradley removed his jewelry and surrendered a city badge, then buttoned up his pinstriped suit. As bailiffs led him from the courtroom, the former mayor looked over his shoulder toward his family, his eyes glassy with tears.
"We love you, Omar!" shouted a supporter, Jean Bludso. "He just tried to help black people and this is what you give him."
Others in the courtroom chanted "kangaroo court" before they were ordered out by bailiffs.
Prosecutors had charged Bradley, Rahh and Johnson with two counts each of misusing public funds from 1999 to 2001. Prosecutors alleged that they had used their city-issued credit cards for personal items. They also charged that the men had taken cash advances for city business expenses but then charged those items to their city credit cards and pocketed the cash.
Bradley, 45, was accused of misusing about $7,500, much of it related to trips. The items purchased included golf balls and shoes, divot repair tools, a three-day stay in a penthouse hotel room and in-room movies.
Deputy Dist. Attys. Kerry White and Terry Bork told jurors that Bradley had used the city's treasury as his own "piggy bank."
Bradley defense lawyer Ben Pesta argued that the expenses had been justified because they had been incurred while Bradley was doing work on the city's behalf.
Bradley was a highly controversial figure during the decade he dominated Compton politics. A former high school football coach, he helped beautify the city and bring in jobs. But he was accused of nepotism after hiring friends and family members. He was also criticized for cultivating a tough-guy image by calling himself the "gangster mayor" at a time when gang crime was rampant in the impoverished community.
The FBI also has been investigating Bradley-era city transactions, including a garbage contract awarded to a businessman who is a friend of Bradley. Also being probed is a series of transactions between Compton officials and a former councilman from neighboring Lynwood, Paul Richards.
On the witness stand, Bradley insisted that his spending had been justified because it had been related to city business. He recalled discussing charity fundraising with a fellow official on one golf excursion. On another golf outing where he purchased two cigars, golf shoes and golf balls, Bradley said, he had talked with a businesswoman who wanted to open a Del Taco restaurant in Compton.
Rahh, a 55-year-old college professor, was charged with, among other things, using $1,200 in public funds to buy a set of dentures for his brother.
Johnson, 47, was charged with using $6,400 in taxpayer funds to fly his son's basketball team to a tournament in Florida and to purchase gym memberships for his family.
After the jury's verdict, Pesta said he was "dumbfounded" by the prosecution's demand that Bradley be locked up until his sentencing.