SAN FRANCISCO — Ruling against a former Bell Gardens City Council member, the California Supreme Court decided Thursday that public officials may be guilty of corruption even if they relied on a government attorney's opinion that their conduct was legal.
The unanimous decision clears the way for the prosecution of ex-council member Maria Chacon, who was charged with conflict of interest after allegedly pressuring other council members to appoint her city manager.
Chacon contended that she based her actions on an opinion from the city attorney, but the court said that was no defense.
"A public official is not required to know that his conduct is unlawful" to be found to have broken the law, Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote for the court. "Therefore, reliance on advice of counsel as to the lawfulness of the conduct is irrelevant."
Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley called the decision a "big victory for us and those other prosecutors in California who are actively enforcing conflict-of-interest laws."
"This sends a very, very powerful message that this mechanism to circumvent conflict-of-interest statutes is not going to be tolerated," Cooley said.
D.A. spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said many counties around the state prosecute public corruption, and the defense the Supreme Court struck down was not uncommon.
"This has huge statewide significance," Gibbons said.
Michael D. Nasatir, an attorney for Chacon, said he was "terribly disappointed."
"Maria Chacon has always maintained that she is entirely innocent of these charges," Nasatir said. "We will not stop fighting until her innocence is established. We respect the American jury system, and her salvation is now in the hands of a jury of her peers."
Cooley said he was unaware of Chacon's current employment, and Nasatir declined to elaborate beyond his statement. If convicted of the felony charge, Chacon could receive a maximum of three years in prison.
Chacon, arrested in 2001, was considered the most powerful public official in Bell Gardens at the time. She was credited with a campaign in the early 1990s to oust the white-majority council in the heavily Latino city and helped allies win elections.
Many residents protested her appointment as city manager, saying she was unqualified because she lacked a college degree and had no experience running a city.
Prosecutors said Chacon, in an effort to get the appointment, sought the support of another council member and told him of her desired salary and terms. But the Bell Gardens municipal code prohibited anyone from being appointed within one year of service on the City Council.
That waiting period was removed by a vote of the council, which included Chacon. The other council members later gave her an $80,000 annual contract, and she moved from the council to the city manager's office.
Cooley prosecuted Chacon under a state law that prohibits public officials from having a financial interest in a contract approved by their agency.
A trial judge ruled that Chacon could present evidence that she had relied on advice from the city attorney that her conduct was legal. L.A. prosecutors said they could not proceed under those circumstances, and the judge dismissed the case.
But prosecutors appealed to the 2nd District Court of Appeal, which overruled the trial judge. The state Supreme Court upheld the appellate decision.
The defense Chacon wanted to use -- reliance on advice from a government official -- has been recognized as legitimate in other cases. But the Supreme Court said it should not be extended to public officials who claim reliance on "public attorneys charged with counseling them and advocating on their behalf."
The court observed that the city attorney in Bell Gardens was a subordinate of the City Council. An official cannot escape liability by "claiming to have been misinformed by an employee serving at her pleasure," the court said.
Otherwise, a public official could "insulate herself from prosecution by influencing an appointee to provide the advice she seeks."
The court did not determine that Chacon had violated the law, only that she could not rely on the defense of bad advice from a government lawyer. A trial date has yet to be set.