Juanita St. John, a former business partner of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley accused of stealing $180,000 from a city-funded African trade task force, was acquitted Friday of failing to honor a subpoena for records that city auditors believe would show how she spent the money.
An ebullient St. John hugged her attorneys after hearing the verdict, but refused to discuss the case outside court. Her daughter, Kathy Mendenhall, who works for Bradley, swept her 58-year-old mother out of the courtroom and down a nearby staircase to avoid reporters.
"That's the first one," a smiling St. John said over her daughter's objections. "I have good attorneys."
The four-day Los Angeles Municipal Court trial, which was held across the street from City Hall, was the lesser of two criminal cases against St. John. The trial grew out of an audit by the city controller's office of the city-funded task force.
She faces a preliminary hearing next month on felony grand theft charges in connection with her activities as executive director of the Task Force for Africa/Los Angeles Relations, a pet project of Bradley's.
The longtime Bradley ally allegedly used some of the task force's money to cover payments to Bradley and others who were partners with her in a Riverside County real estate partnership. Prosecutors have said they found no evidence Bradley was aware he had received task force funds.
A spokeswoman for Bradley said Friday that the mayor "does not want to comment" on her acquittal.
Attorney Richard G. Hirsch, who represented St. John on the misdemeanor charge, predicted Friday's verdict will help his client fight the more serious felony charges.
"I think the facts of this case show the audit, which I assume is the basis of the criminal charges in that case, was not carried out in a professional and competent way," Hirsch said after the verdict.
But Deputy Dist. Atty. Stephen Licker, who is prosecuting the pending embezzlement case, said the two cases are unrelated.
"They are totally independent," he said. Her acquittal "has nothing to do with her guilt or innocence on the (felony) charges."
In reaching his verdict Friday, Los Angeles Municipal Court Judge Stephen Czuleger said his decision was based on claims by St. John's attorneys that they did not have enough time to respond to the subpoena. St. John was served last July 16 and ordered to turn over various financial records to the city controller's office on July 21.
"I don't think it was reasonable to expect the attorneys . . . to believe that they would be able to properly advise her by the 21st," Czuleger said. "That being the case, I believe there is a legal excuse for her not to comply with the subpoena."
City Controller Rick Tuttle, who testified against St. John during the trial, described the judge's decision as "disappointing." In reality, he said, St. John had plenty of time to produce the records. He said his auditors had been asking for them for more than two months before they issued a subpoena.
To date, Tuttle said, St. John has not turned over any of the subpoenaed records.
"Mrs. St. John should be held accountable for her actions when she refused to comply with my subpoena," Tuttle said after the trial. "But the fact remains that Mrs. St. John has not accounted for how she spent the $180,000 worth of city money. This acquittal doesn't change any of that."
Deputy City Atty. Michael Guarino, who prosecuted the misdemeanor case, reacted bitterly to the verdict outside the courtroom.
"She basically decided to sit at home that day, and she has been vindicated," Guarino said. "I can't comprehend that. . . . She is a villain in this city, but that doesn't mean that she is not going to fare very well in court, and that doesn't mean that she isn't going to get off the hook."
Hirsch, St. John's attorney, attempted throughout the trial to characterize her as an innocent victim of City Hall politics. He said Tuttle and City Atty. James K. Hahn were pushed into prosecuting St. John because of political pressures and intense media scrutiny surrounding Bradley's financial troubles.
"Clearly this was bad prosecution," Hirsch told reporters. "It should never have been brought. We told the city attorney when the subpoena was issued this case should never be tried. They made their bed, and they have to lie in it."
Tuttle's office launched its audit last April in response to allegations that St. John may have mishandled some of the $400,000 in city funds allocated over four years to the task force. St. John provided city auditors with many records, but the auditors were unable to account for $180,000 in city funds.