Bell 8 Scandal: Legal Commentary
October 7, 2013: And then there was one. How did this case go from eight defendants (and twice as many lawyers!) to just former assistant city administrator Angela Spaccia, all by herself?
The Bell Six, as the former city council members came to be known, all faced similar charges with nearly identical evidence connecting them to the misappropriation of taxpayer money. They were tried together earlier this year, and the jury deadlocked, unable to come to a verdict. Lawyers are now gearing up for a new trial.
Former Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo and Angela Spaccia, however, as the allegedly more culpable defendants, were in a case by themselves. Then, on the eve of the trial against Rizzo and Spaccia, Rizzo struck a deal with the prosecution.
In exchange for his testimony against Spaccia, his former assistant, and a no contest plea to 69 felony charges of misappropriating public funds, hiding and falsifying records, perjury and various other crimes, Rizzo will be sentenced to a prison term between 10 and 12 years and restitution payments to the small California city of $1 million to $3.2 million.
Meanwhile, the only one still standing is Spaccia. Rizzo, through his lawyer, claimed that Spaccia was in fact the mastermind behind the corruption scheme. He told the court that it was her scheme that inflated his salary to $800,000 a year and hers to nearly $400,000 a year, all at the expense of Bell’s largely working-class taxpayers.
Now, it will be up to Spaccia and her defense attorney, Harland Braun, to prove that she was merely Rizzo’s assistant, just doing her job. Braun is well-known in Los Angeles as a tough and intelligent defense lawyer who will not go down without a fight, and it looks like he’s going to get one. He has contested the judge hearing the matter, Kathleen Kennedy, arguing that she assisted with plea negotiations for Rizzo and cannot be objective in the case against Spaccia.
Ultimately, of course, it will be up to a downtown Los Angeles jury to determine who is more credible, Rizzo or Spaccia, and where the true culpability for the corruption lies.
March 11, 2012: For lawyers on both sides, the biggest challenge of this case is simply its size and scope. With eight defendants, eight defense lawyers and a team of prosecutors working on the matter, there’s a long way to go before the case will be resolved. Wild About Trial has sat in on several court hearings in this case, and even the simplest proceedings always take eight times as long with so many defendants and lawyers.
Some of the defense lawyers have stated that a recent Supreme Court decision might benefit the Bell 8. The Supreme Court said that prosecutors in public corruption cases have to prove that defendants either (a) knew they were breaking the law, or (b) were criminally negligent in not knowing they were breaking the law. For law junkies, that case is Stark v. Superior Court.
It’s hard to believe that Rizzo & Co. didn’t know they were breaking the law by using taxpayer dollars to give themselves salaries higher than the President’s, but if they were dumb enough to think they could get away with retiring on seven-figure pensions, maybe they were just dumb enough to not know it was a crime.
At this point, a trial is still months away and delayed even longer while the California Court of Appeal examines several procedural issues, but it’s sure to be a long and wild ride, as more facts come to light about the depths to which these oliticians allegedly sank in stealing from the poor residents of Bell.