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Angela Spaccia's trial launches final look at Bell scandal

The key issue in the trial of the former assistant city manager is whether she was the mastermind or a dupe of boss Robert Rizzo.

October 23, 2013|By Jeff Gottlieb, Jack Leonard and Ruben Vives
  • FORMER BELL Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia, center, who is charged with misappropriation of public funds and other criminal counts, listens to opening statements in Los Angeles County Superior Court at her trial. At left is her attorney Harland Braun; behind her is investigator Leslie Robertson.
FORMER BELL Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia, center, who is charged… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

The final chapter in the long-running Bell corruption scandal opened Wednesday with former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia taking center stage in a downtown L.A. courtroom where jurors must weigh whether she helped orchestrate the widespread graft or was simply a victim of her boss, Robert Rizzo.

The trial is expected to lay bare details of how Bell leaders gave themselves exorbitant salaries while looting the working-class city in what became a national symbol of government greed.

Spaccia and Rizzo, Bell's former city manager, have each accused the other of masterminding the corruption scheme after Rizzo avoided a trial this month by abruptly pleading no contest to dozens of felony charges. The plea left Spaccia alone to face the most serious charges in the sweeping corruption case, which already has resulted in guilty verdicts against five former council members.

During opening statements in the trial Wednesday, Deputy Dist. Atty. Max Huntsman told the seven-woman, five-man jury that Spaccia played a key role in the scandal. Before she was hired in 2002, Rizzo was earning about $200,000 a year, he said.

"Right after that, Ms. Spaccia arrived and changed everything in Bell," Huntsman said.

The salaries of both administrators soared to unheard-of levels as Spaccia and Rizzo wrote their own contracts that included generous annual raises and were hidden from the public, the prosecutor said. The pair had a "special formula" that boosted their pay, including 26 weeks of vacation and sick leave that could be cashed in, Huntsman said. By 2010, Rizzo was earning $1.18 million a year and Spaccia $564,000.

The pair "never, ever took a day of sick time," Huntsman said. "They got paid for every single day."

But Spaccia's attorney, Harland Braun, described the case against his client as politically motivated. He noted that the charges were filed in 2010 by then-Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who trumpeted the prosecution during his unsuccessful campaign that year for attorney general before he retired last year.

"Despite all the smears and politics, Angela, like a lot of other people, was a victim of Robert Rizzo," Braun said.

Spaccia, 55, faces 13 felony counts, including conspiracy, misappropriation of public funds, conflict of interest and hiding and falsifying government records. Dressed in black slacks, a dark gray coat and dangling earrings, she showed little emotion in the downtown courtroom during the day's opening statements.

Behind her in the audience sat former Bell council members George Mirabal and Teresa Jacobo, both of whom were among the former city officials convicted of misappropriating public funds during a separate trial earlier this year.

Jurors in that case deadlocked on several charges that prosecutors say they intend to retry.

But it is Spaccia's trial that city residents expect will reveal additional details about how top administrators enriched themselves and who was ultimately responsible.

"I hope that this hearing will help bring full disclosure of the extent of the corruption," said Councilman Ali Saleh, who joined the council in a recall election after The Times reported how much Rizzo, Spaccia and other city officials were making.

Rizzo's exorbitant salary and lavish lifestyle made him the public face of the Bell scandal. He ran Bell for 17 years and owned a ranch near Seattle as well as racehorses, including a gelding named Depenserdel'argent — French for "spend money."

He faced 69 felony charges — far more than any other Bell official. A judge said she would sentence him to 10 to 12 years in state prison, though he is likely to serve half that.

Rizzo's attorney has accused Spaccia of being the "mastermind" of the scheme to fleece the city. Rizzo has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and could be called as a witness at her trial.

Despite Rizzo's central role, Huntsman noted for jurors that it was Spaccia who wrote a notorious email that symbolized the greed while she was negotiating a contract with incoming Police Chief Randy Adams.

In an email to Spaccia, Adams wrote: "I am looking forward to seeing you and taking all of Bell's money?! Okay ... just a share of it!!"

She responded: "LOL ... well you can take your share of the pie ... just like us!!! We will all get fat together ... [Robert Rizzo] has an expression he likes to use on occasion. Pigs get Fat ... Hogs get slaughtered!!!! So as long as we're not Hogs ... All is well!"

Adams was paid $470,000 a year, about double what he had previously made as chief in the much larger city of Glendale.

Huntsman said Spaccia also was the architect of lucrative pension deals for herself and Rizzo that enabled them to get around federal pension rules for officials receiving high salaries.

Although it never was funded, the plan was for the city to put in $8 million for Spaccia and $7.5 million for Rizzo, Huntsman said, and they would be the only two beneficiaries.

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