Angela Spaccia’s defense in the Bell corruption trial is simple: She agrees she made too much money, but that’s not a crime.
Spaccia’s trial on charges that she worked with her boss, Robert Rizzo, to engineer huge salaries for Bell’s leaders provided vivid evidence of graft in the small, working-class city. But it will be up to the jury to decide whether Spaccia was an active player in the effort to misappropriate public money or simply someone who benefited from it. The jury began deliberations Friday
For Spaccia to be found not guilty on the 13 counts of misappropriation of funds, conspiracy, conflict of interest and other charges, she and her attorney will have had to convince jurors that she had no idea the lawbreaking was taking place. Spaccia worked as Rizzo’s deputy for seven years and received a salary that topped out at $564,000 a year, unheard-of compensation for someone in her position.
She testified that none of the attorneys working for the city told her anything was wrong and that at times they even told her Rizzo had the authority to do things that were later deemed illegal.
Spaccia, 55, spent seven days on the witness stand. She cried several times, usually when talking about family tragedies. During one emotional moment of testimony, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy rolled her eyes.
Spaccia’s hefty compensation was covered extensively in the trial. Her pay included vacation and sick leave that increased her salary by 50% when cashed out, as well as extraordinary benefits. Rizzo’s salary hit $1.18 million annually, and, prosecutors charge, Spaccia wrote the contracts for the two of them that the council never approved.
Spaccia also is charged with negotiating a special pension plan for the two top administrators that would have cost the city $15.5 million to fund.
“I think Angela did very well on the stand,” Harland Braun, her attorney, said in an interview Friday. “Obviously, she’s the most important person in the case. Once a defendant takes the stand, everything else disappears.
“We’d like the jury to be very analytical,” Braun added, “because if they just rely on emotions, we have a difficult time because of the amounts of money and some of the emails.”
Spaccia has tried to distance herself from Rizzo and show that she too was a victim. When prosecutors shook up the trial by showing that after a council resolution had passed, a phrase was added giving Rizzo what he claimed was more power, Spaccia was dismayed.
“That’s pretty disgusting,” she said. “I obviously trusted someone I should have not.”
Rizzo, who did not testify, pleaded no contest last month to 69 counts of corruption.
Spaccia pointed out that although she worked in Bell from 2003 through 2010, there was about a year and a half total when she never showed up to work. During that time she went to Idaho to take care of her dying grandfather, nursed her son after he nearly died in a motorcycle accident and had several surgeries herself.
But during these absences, she acknowledged, she was still paid her full salary. Not only was she never docked a sick or vacation day, she continued accruing more days off.
During his cross-examination, Deputy Dist. Atty. Sean Hassett questioned Spaccia about her absence to take care of her grandfather.
“You think the people of Bell should have to pay for you to not work for them during this six-month period of time?” Hassett asked.
“That’s an interesting question,” she answered. “I’ve never looked at it that way.”
“I don’t even know how to answer that. I looked at it that my employer made a decision on how to handle my pay and accruals. Is that fair or unfair? I don’t know.”
But by trying to use her absences as an alibi, Spaccia may have tripped herself up, with prosecutors saying her actions amounted to conspiracy to misappropriate public funds.
“I didn’t plan on it being part of the case until she announced it in court,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Max Huntsman said in an interview with The Times.
Spaccia insisted that she had no interest in a huge salary but that Rizzo all but forced it on her.
She testified that when she took her job in Bell, she told Rizzo that her life had changed and she didn’t need a high salary. She said all she needed was $200,000 a year so she could retire with a $100,000 annual pension at 50.
In another instance, Spaccia testified that she received an unauthorized $72,000 loan from the city even though she didn’t want it. She said Rizzo told her she needed to cash out her vacation and sick time, and this was a way to accomplish that because it was how loans were repaid in Bell.
Spaccia received about $350,000 total in loans from the city.
Perhaps the most difficult evidence for Spaccia are the 2009 emails she wrote to Randy Adams during their negotiations that led to his $457,000-a-year salary as police chief.
“I am looking forward do seeing you and taking all of Bell’s money?!” Adams wrote. “Okay ... just a share of it.!!”
“LOL ... well you can take your share of the pie ... just like us!!! We all will get fat together ... Bob has an expression he likes to use on occasion ...
“Pigs get Fat ... Hogs get slaughtered!!! So long as we’re not Hogs ... all is well!!”
Although critics have said the exchange epitomizes the greed in Bell, Adams and Spaccia testified that they were kidding.
“I regret that I ever joked around,” Spaccia told jurors. “All I was trying to do was be nice but funny, witty.... In a nutshell I was saying back, ‘Ha ha ha, don’t be greedy because you are being a pig.’”
About five weeks later in their communications, Adams told Spaccia he wanted the term “pay period” defined in his contract.
Spaccia replied: “We have crafted our agreements carefully so we do not draw attention to our pay. The word Pay Period is used and not defined in order to protect you from someone taking the time to add up your salary.”
Prosecutors have argued that she and Rizzo hid their salaries and Adams’, even going so far as to provide a false document when a local resident filed a public records request.
Back in Bell, residents are anxiously awaiting the jury’s decision.
“I feel like I’m pregnant, and I’m in the delivery room waiting for the verdict,” said Bell Mayor Violeta Alvarez.