LOS ANGELES (AP) — The former assistant city manager of the corruption-riddled city of Bell used a secret formula concocted by her and her one-time boss to take millions of dollars from the city's coffers — a scheme that wasn't discovered until they were forced to publicly disclose their earnings, a prosecutor said Wednesday.
Showing a series of emails, contracts and other documents, Deputy District Attorney Max Huntsman told a jury in his opening statements that Angel Spaccia, 55, boosted her own salary and gave herself additional benefits for at least several years unbeknownst to the public.
By the time Spaccia and her former boss, ex-Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo, were arrested three years ago, Huntsman said, they had been making upward of $560,000 and nearly $1.2 million, respectively, with their annual salaries, accrued sick and vacation days and loans.
"That was the end of the gravy train," Huntsman said.
Spaccia is on trial on 13 counts, including misappropriation of funds. If convicted, she faces up to 16 years in state prison.
Rizzo, who has been depicted as the mastermind of the brazen municipal corruption scandal that drove the modest Los Angeles suburb to the brink of bankruptcy, recently pleaded no contest to 69 counts of fraud, conflict of interest and other charges. In agreeing to testify against Spaccia and other former city officials, he will be sentenced to no more than 10 to 12 years in prison instead of a possible maximum of 70 years.
Huntsman said Spaccia's involvement in the corruption scheme was documented in her own words.
In a 2009 email exchange with incoming Police Chief Randy Adams, Spaccia promised him they will enrich themselves as long as they don't get too greedy.
"I am looking forward to seeing you and taking all of Bell's money," Adams wrote Spaccia.
"We will all get fat together," Spaccia responded. "Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. So as long as we're not hogs all is well."
Spaccia also tells Adams in another email: "We have crafted our agreements carefully so we do not draw attention to our pay."
Adams was never charged in the case. However, five former Bell council members were convicted last March of fraud charges after jurors found the one-time city officials paid themselves six-figure salaries for sitting on boards and commissions that did no work.
One council member was acquitted, and some charges that jurors couldn't decide on remain to be retried.
Spaccia's attorney, Harland Braun, said his client thought her annual salary was legitimate because Rizzo told her it was.
Braun said Wednesday that Spaccia's arrest three years ago was politically motivated as then-Attorney General Jerry Brown and ex-Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley seized upon the scandal months before an election. Brown is now California's governor; Cooley lost a bid to become the state's attorney general to Kamala Harris.
Braun cited a transcript where one of the case investigators tells a former co-worker of Spaccia's that the probe may have been fast-tracked because of the upcoming election.
"A trial should be about the truth, not about politics," Braun said.
Bell is home to some 35,000 residents, many of whom live below the federal poverty line. After the scandal broke, they held a recall election and threw out all of the city council members. By then, Rizzo and Spaccia had been fired.
The salaries came to light in 2010 after Rizzo released them to the Los Angeles Times. He had stalled the newspaper's reporters for weeks until they threatened to have their attorneys demand the documents under California public records law. The Times won a Pulitzer Prize for uncovering the scandal.