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Angela Spaccia describes Rizzo as 'brilliant' in running Bell

The city's former second in command testifies that her boss Robert Rizzo had 'the perfect management style.'

November 07, 2013|By Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives
  • Angela Spaccia testified in her own defense on Friday, tearfully recounting her years working in Bell. She is one of eight former Bell officials who were accused of looting the city's treasury to pay themselves outsized salaries.
Angela Spaccia testified in her own defense on Friday, tearfully recounting… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

Angela Spaccia and Robert Rizzo are now bitter adversaries, each blaming the other for masterminding the Bell corruption scandal.

But 10 years ago, when Rizzo hired Spaccia, she said she was enthralled by his "brilliant" stewardship of the small, working-class city.

"You knew when you were in Bell, and you knew when you were out of Bell," the city's former second in command testified Thursday. Rizzo, she said, had "the perfect management style."

Spaccia took the witness stand in her own defense, at times tearfully recounting her years working in Bell. She is one of eight former Bell officials who were accused of looting the city's treasury to pay themselves outsized salaries. In 2010, Spaccia earned more than $500,000, while Rizzo received more than $1 million.

Her testimony came on the day prosecutors revealed that the city used $10,000 in taxpayer money for one councilman to go to a weight-loss camp and paid an undisclosed amount to buy hair plugs for the mayor.

Spaccia painted a picture of a city where Rizzo called the shots and was firmly in control. The generous salaries for city employees, she said, were his idea.

She said she was initially paid $100,000 a year when she was hired in 2003 as finance director. But her salary and related perks rose rapidly. She said she told Rizzo she needed a big enough salary so that she could retire in 2010, at age 50.

"If I could make something like $200,000, I would be ecstatic," she recalled telling Rizzo, because that would give her $100,000 a year in retirement. "He said, 'Done.' "

Rizzo agreed to the generous pay, Spaccia added, to prevent her and others from leaving the city for other jobs.

"He didn't want the city of Bell to be a steppingstone, he was going to pay everyone, not just management, everyone well enough so that they wouldn't have an incentive to leave," she said.

Asked by her attorney, Harland Braun, whether she had been overpaid, she responded: "Yes. I'd say the last two to three years I was overpaid by about twice what I needed be paid."

Spaccia said that $250,000 a year "would have been more than sufficient."

Was her salary illegal? Braun asked.

"No," she answered.

Spaccia tearfully recounted that over several years, she was out of City Hall dealing with a variety of personal issues, including caring for an ailing grandfather and son. She said she had several surgeries during this time but did not provide details. She was paid her full salary while missing several months of work.

Rizzo pleaded no contest to 69 corruption-related charges last month and is expected to be sentenced to 10 to 12 years in prison. He claims Spaccia was the architect of the corruption and agreed to cooperate with the prosecution.

Spaccia faces 13 felony corruption charges.

Earlier in the trial, Braun told jurors that "despite all the smears and politics, Angela, like a lot of other people, was a victim of Robert Rizzo."

Prosecutors take a dimmer view.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Max Huntsman said Spaccia played a central role in the ballooning salaries. Her hunger for money was virtually unchecked, a former city official testified, and the running joke among City Hall staffers was that she was "sleeping with her paycheck."

A bank executive testified that in drawing up a special retirement plan for Rizzo and herself, Spaccia arranged it so that the percentage used to calculate her benefits was actually twice the size of what Rizzo would get. The eventual payoff for Spaccia, he said, would have been about $8 million over her lifetime.

Prosecutors say Spaccia's hefty pay increases never received the required approval of the City Council.

Before Spaccia took the stand, former Councilwoman Teresa Jacobo testified. She was asked about the weight-loss program for Councilman George Cole and the hair plugs for Mayor Oscar Hernandez. She said she was aware of Cole's weight camp but didn't know who paid for it.

Jacobo was convicted earlier this year, along with four other former council members, for being paid for serving on a city board that met seldom, if ever.

Jacobo made it clear that she relied on Rizzo to run the small city and never challenged him, and said that she didn't read everything in her agenda packets prior to council meetings.

Jacobo testified that Rizzo got angry if she spoke to city staff without going through him.

She said that when she heard that rent money was missing from the city-owned mobile home park, she spoke to city employees who supervised the facility.

"I got scolded," she said. "Mr. Rizzo said it was none of my business and it was not part of my job and he was taking care of it."

Rizzo, she said, told her he would look into it.

"I believed him," Jacobo said. But instead, she said, the employee who had told her about the missing money was fired.

Part of the Spaccia trial has focused on emails she exchanged with Randy Adams, the former Bell police chief, whom she hired at a salary of $457,000 a year.

In one email, Spaccia wrote: "We have crafted our agreements carefully so we do not draw attention to our pay."

jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com

ruben.vives@latimes.com

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