Prosecutor Charges St. John Used Funds as ‘Piggy Bank’ : Trial: He says she spent city money on personal debts. Her lawyer says she is owed a reimbursement.
The head of a city-funded African trade program used its bank account “as her own personal piggy bank,” a prosecutor said Wednesday.
Juanita St. John, a longtime associate of Mayor Tom Bradley, took $177,000 from the account “and spent it on her own personal life, her own personal debts,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Stephen S. Licker told a Los Angeles Superior Court jury during opening statements in St. John’s trial on embezzlement charges.
“A lot of the money was spent to pay mortgages and property debts,” Licker said, noting that St. John was having financial problems. “It was spent on restaurants, Visa cards and personal items.”
St. John, 59, is charged with felony theft of the money from the UCLA-based Task Force for Africa/Los Angeles Relations, which she headed. She also is accused of stealing $5,000 as treasurer of an anti-genocide group and filing false state tax returns from 1985 through 1987.
Her attorney, Victor Sherman, argued that the evidence of St. John’s innocence “is overwhelming.”
“Every single penny” that his client spent from the account “has been accounted for,” Sherman said.
Rather than taking money to which she was not entitled, St. John actually is owed more than $6,000 that the city failed to reimburse her for legitimate expenses, Sherman said.
Sherman said the mayor will be called as a character witness.
The defendant and Bradley are friends, professional associates and business partners. In addition to supporting the task force, Bradley has hired St. John’s daughter, Kathy, to work in his office. Bradley also was a partner in a Riverside County land venture with St. John, her daughter and several other investors.
St. John, who has charged repeatedly that her prosecution is politically motived, has predicted that she will be acquitted and has said that when she is, she will “sue the hell out of” her accusers.
During a preliminary hearing in December, Municipal Judge David Doi ordered the trial but said the case appeared weak.
Three weeks after she was ordered to stand trial, St. John had another brush with the law.
Shortly before midnight on Dec. 29, California Highway Patrol officers arrested her on the Pasadena Freeway and accused her of driving while under the influence of alcohol. On April 19, she pleaded no contest to drunk driving.
Despite financial problems in recent years that included a collection agency judgment against her, an insurance company suit against her husband over a $65,000 bounced check and a mortgage company’s threat to foreclose on the couple’s San Marino home, the St. Johns have managed to stay financially afloat.
Records show that the couple have fended off creditors by borrowing money, mostly against their equity in the Spanish-syle home, recently valued at $800,000.