Irwindale City Councilman Mark Breceda, left, and former Irwindale City… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)
Los Angeles County prosecutors failed to present grand jurors with evidence favorable to Irwindale officials before seeking an indictment in connection with lavish business trips that city officials took to New York, a panel of state appellate justices said Thursday.
The appeals court panel threw out the embezzlement counts against four Irwindale officials, who enjoyed pricey restaurants, Broadway shows and baseball games during trips to meet with bond raters in an effort to obtain better bond ratings.
The appellate panel described the amount of money spent on the trips as "shocking" as well as "an abuse of the public trust and perhaps violative of certain laws." The panel's opinion noted that one New York visit cost Irwindale more than $62,000 and included stays at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Central Park and tickets to the show "Wicked."
But the panel's three justices also ruled that prosecutors should have presented two significant documents to the grand jury that might have undermined the district attorney's theory that the officials were "double dipping."
Prosecutors argued that three council members -- Mark Breceda, Rosemary Ramirez and Manuel Garcia -- were paid $75 daily allotments meant to cover meals and travel. Financial consultants initially paid for expenses on the New York trips, including the meals of city officials, and were later reimbursed by the city.
The justices wrote that prosectors failed to show grand jurors documents in which the city manager explained that the daily allotments were to be paid even if meals had otherwise been paid for.
The documents "arguably would have shown that there was no deceit whatsoever," wrote Justice Jeffrey W. Johnson for the panel. "While greed and fraudulent intent may be siblings, they certainly are not identical twins."
The district attorney's office argued that the two prosecutors who presented the case to the grand jury -- Deputy Dist. Attys. Max Huntsman and Susan Schwartz -- had not known about the documents. But the appellate justices said other district attorney's officials had known, including the lead investigator on the case.
"It is the duty of the office of the district attorney to gather all the information made available throughout the office and present that information to the grand jury," Johnson wrote in the opinion.
The appellate court threw out the embezzlement charges against Breceda, Ramirez, Garcia and retired Finance Director Abe De Dios. Former City Manager Steve Blancarte pleaded guilty in 2011 to misappropriating public funds and paid $20,000 in restitution and fines.
Huntsman, the prosecutor, said his office will consider appealing Thursday's decision to the state Supreme Court, or refiling charges.
“We still believe that our case on the merits is strong,” Huntsman said.
A single count against Ramirez remains, alleging that she attempted to dissuade a witness from testifying.
Four current, former Irwindale officials accused of misspending city money on lavish New York trips
Irwindale officials spent lavishly during business trips to discuss housing for the poor
Current and former Irwindale officials to be tried for embezzlement