Prosecutors accused a former assistant city manager Wednesday of using a "secret formula" to boost her salary and those of her colleagues in a scandal that bilked a small community southeast of downtown Los Angeles out of millions of dollars.
Opening statements began Wednesday in the trial of Angela Spaccia, charged with 13 counts that include misappropriation of public funds. She faces 16 years in state prison if convicted in the case that ignited outrage in the city of Bell, about 10 miles southeast of downtown LA.
Prosecutors, citing emails and other communication involving city officials, said Spaccia and former city manager Robert Rizzo were behind a scheme involving inflated salaries -- a "gravy train" that came to an end after a series of reports by the Los Angeles Times and tense city council meetings at which residents called for their resignations.
In one of the emails, Spaccia wrote: "We have crafted our agreements carefully so we don't
attract attention to our pay."
"You now know the secret formula," said Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Max Huntsman. "The formula that the public never knew and nobody could ever figure out."
The "formula" allowed Bell city officials to mismanage funds and boost their own salaries without revealing the stunning figures to the public, or even other city officials, according to prosecutors. Spaccia received close to $400,000 per year, an amount she has acknowledged was too much.
Her part in the scandal involved writing contracts and negotiating deals, according to prosecutors. Prosecutors used PowerPoint projections to display how the secret formula was "constructed."
"This did not just fall into their laps," said prosecutor Max Hunstman.
Rizzo stood accused of stealing more than $5 million from the city of Bell, allegedly writing up his own contracts that were not subject to city council approval. Rizzo took in more than $1 million some years and gave himself hefty retirement packages, according to prosecutors.
But Spaccia is the lone defendant because Rizzo pleaded no contest earlier this month to 69 counts. He will be sentenced to no more than 10 to 12 years in prison and is expected to testify at Spaccia's trial.
The LA County District attorney's office said Rizzo's no contest plea did not involve a deal with the office.
"Obviously, a lot of the evidence for the prosecution is going to come in first," said defense attorney Harland Braun. "They have a particular point of view and it's important to understand what our point of view is so you can make it easier to reserve judgement."
Five other former Bell officials -- all elected members of the City Council -- have 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.
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 exonerated former Councilman Luis Artiga of all 12 counts against him.
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