Eight years after former Compton Mayor Omar Bradley was found guilty of corruption, an appeals court this week tossed his conviction out, saying that his trial had not proved that Bradley meant to break the law.
Bradley was convicted of misappropriation of public funds in 2004 along with former Councilman Amen Rahh and former City Manager John D. Johnson II. Prosecutors said the men had used their city-issued credit cards for personal items and "double dipped" by taking cash advances for city business expenses and then charging the items to their city credit cards. Bradley was accused of misusing about $7,500 for purchases that included golf balls and shoes, cigars, a three-day stay in a penthouse hotel room and in-room movies.
The Compton scandal was a high-profile corruption case for L.A. prosecutors in part because Bradley was a flamboyant figure who labeled himself the "gangster mayor."
Bradley argued that his expenses were incurred while doing his job — for instance, discussing city business with a utility company representative on the golf course — and that the city manager had signed off on them.
Bradley appealed the conviction for years without success, but a California Supreme Court decision last year gave him a new argument. In that case, involving charges against Sutter County Auditor-Controller Robert Stark, the court determined that officials must know or be "criminally negligent" for not knowing that they are doing something illegal in order to be guilty of misappropriation of funds.
Based on that case, the appeals court reversed its previous decision in Bradley's case and overturned his conviction Wednesday. It remained unclear Thursday whether other officials convicted of corruption could make a similar case.
Bradley, a former school teacher, was credited with cleaning up streets but also accused of bullying and nepotism, and his move to outsource the Compton Police Department in 2000 stirred controversy.
Compton's current mayor, Eric Perrodin, a deputy district attorney and former Compton police officer, unseated Bradley in 2001, spurring a merry-go-round of lawsuits in which the two bumped each other out of office repeatedly before Perrodin prevailed.
Bradley originally received a three-year sentence, which he served in prison and a halfway house. He also lost his teaching credential and was barred from holding public office because of the felony conviction.
"I've had a very tough go of it, and I'm just thankful that God saw fit to exonerate me," Bradley said, reached by phone on Thursday. The former mayor said he was convinced that his conviction was racially and politically motivated, but added, "I'm not angry anymore."
With his conviction overturned, Bradley is free to run for public office again, although he declined to say if he would. His wife last year mounted an unsuccessful campaign for Compton City Council.
The attorney general's office and district attorney's office must decide in the next 60 days whether to appeal the decision to the California Supreme Court or re-file charges and try the case again. Officials said they are still evaluating their options.
Dave Demerjian, head of the Los Angeles district attorney's public integrity division, said despite the reversal in the Bradley case, he did not expect the Stark case to be a setback to his office. The public integrity unit has won convictions in the two cases it has tried under the new guidelines — one against a former Beverly Hills schools superintendent and the other against two former Lynwood City Council members. The guilty verdict in the Lynwood case came in a day before Bradley's conviction was overturned.
"The defense bar seems to think the Stark case is going to have some dramatic effect on us, and so far, it's had no impact," Demerjian said.
Some remained skeptical of the argument that Bradley might not have known he was doing anything wrong. Former Compton City Clerk Charles Davis, who testified against Bradley at trial, said he had warned the former officials in closed session soon after the council voted to issue city credit cards in 1999 that "somebody's going to go to jail" if they were not careful.
"They knew what they were doing," Davis said.
The appeals court left Rahh's and Johnson's convictions in place, saying that there was no evidence that the Stark case would have changed the outcome for them. Johnson had charged the city, among other things, to take his son's basketball team to Florida for a tournament and Rahh paid for dentures for his brother.