Ex-Bell city manager Robert Rizzo’s former assistant insists that despite facing more than a dozen felony charges, she is innocent. She admits that she made too much working under Rizzo but argues that Rizzo was calling the shots, not her. Patrick Healy reports from Downtown Los Angeles for NBC4 News at 6 p.m. on Oct.4, 2013.
A no contest plea from the accused mastermind in a widespread public corruption case drew complaints Friday from his former assistant, whose trial in connection with the scandal is scheduled to begin next week.
Angela Spaccia was the top assistant to then-city manager Robert Rizzo when a corruption scandal that sparked community outrage and led to resignations by city officials broke in the city of Bell, located southeast of downtown Los Angeles. After a court hearing in her case Friday, Spaccia expressed dismay and trepidation regarding Thursday's no contest plea by Rizzo.
"I'm still in shock over what happened yesterday," Spaccia said Friday. "If, in fact, he plans to testify, we'll see if he double-crosses me or not."
Judge Kathleen Kennedy indicated to Rizzo that he faces a sentencing range of 10 to 12 years in prison. His surprise plea was not negotiated with the prosecution, and did not involve the dismissal of any counts, but came after Judge Kennedy indicated to Rizzo she would sentence him to decades fewer than the maximum term he faced if convicted on all counts.
Jury selection in Spaccia's case is scheduled to begin Monday. Rizzo's plea means she will be the sole defendant facing the jury.
"I'm scared to death because the DA wants me to spend the rest of my life in jail," Spaccia said.
Her attorney Friday questioned the judge's decision to offer Rizzo the less-than-maximum sentence. Rizzo was charged with stealing more than $5 million from the city of Bell, allegedly writing up his own contracts that were not subject to city council approval.
"The problem is he really tricked the judge to become part of the prosecution team," Braun said.
Judge Kennedy said she did not know if the prosecution would call Rizzo to testify, and Friday in court prosecutors Sean Hassett and Max Huntsman also declined to say.
Rizzo would bring a lot of baggage with him to the witness stand, experts say. "The jury may look at him and say, 'hey, that's the one behind all this. Why is she here sitting trial?'' said Louis Shapiro, an attorney not involved in the case, but following it.
Outside court Thursday, Rizzo attorney James Spertus said Rizzo is prepared to testify Spaccia was the architect of the lack of transparency that enabled salary contracts and padded pensions to go unseen by elected officials.
Spaccia received close to $400,000 per year, an amount she acknowledged was too much.
"I feel terrible," Spaccia said during an impromptu hallway news conference at times punctuated with tears. In her defense, she insisted that it was Rizzo who drew up the contracts and spear-headed the plan.
She said this happened during a time she was preoccupied dealing with family emergencies, and taking extended leaves from Bell. "If I were the mastermind, do you think I would have taken time to take care of my dying grandfather? Would I have taken nine months to take care of my son? How could I possibly be masterminding crimes when some of the time I wasn't even in the state of California?
Revelation of the exorbitant salaries collected by Rizzo and Spaccia, first reported by the Los Angeles Times in 2010, led to outrage among residents, who packed meetings at Bell City Hall to call for the officials' resignations.
Rizzo took in excess of $1 million some years. The prosecution contended Rizzo wrote his own employment contracts that were never approved by the Bell City Council. It was also alleged Rizzo improperly authorized loans to city employees
Five other former Bell officials -- all elected members of the City Council -- have previously been convicted of misappropriating public funds. Former Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez and ex-City Council members George Mirabal, Teresa Jacobo, George Cole and Victor Bello are also awaiting a retrial on charges on which the original jury could not reach verdicts. They also appeared Friday in Judge Kennedy's courtroom for a status check. Their retrial is scheduled to begin after the conclusion of the Spaccia trial.
During the councilmembers' first trial, Hernandez, Jacobo and Mirabal were each convicted of five counts of misappropriation of public funds and acquitted of five others. Cole was convicted of two counts and acquitted of two others, while Bello was convicted of four counts and acquitted of four others.
The panel completely exonnerated former Councilman Luis Artiga of all 12 counts against him. Artiga attended Friday's court session as a spectator. Afterwards, he said Rizzo could have spared the city of Bell a lot of grief had he stopped denying his wrongdoing years ago.
Rizzo is scheduled to return to court March 12 for sentencing. Credits for time served can cut a sentence in half, so if Rizzo is sentenced to 10-12 years, it is possible he would be released in five to six years.
Rizzo has also been the subject of a federal probe into possible income tax violations, his attorney confirmed. Rizzo's plea in Superior Court means that if federal charges are brought, and he pleads to them, the sentences could be served simultaneously, rather than consecutively, according to his attorney.
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