Assistant City Manager Convicted in Public Funds Scandal Loses Appeal

The James George Bell House in Bell, California. (Mortis24 via Wikipedia)

(CN) – A California appeals court upheld a former assistant city manager’s conviction Tuesday for conspiracy to misappropriate public funds, a corruption scandal that launched the small Southern California city of Bell into the national spotlight.

Pier’Angela Spaccia, former assistant city manager of Bell, and City Manager Robert Rizzo became synonymous with government corruption after it was revealed in 2010 that the six highest-paid administrators were paid combined annual salaries of $6 million – far more than the salary of the president of the United States at the time.

Bell, an incorporated city near Los Angeles, has a population of about 25,000 people. 

In December 2013, a Los Angeles jury found Spaccia had written her own employment contracts, took loans without asking the city council, removed public documents and treated herself to an $8 million retirement plan.

She was convicted of five counts of misappropriation of public funds, one count of conspiracy to misappropriate public funds, four counts of conflict of interest by a public official and one count of secreting an official record.

Along with an 11-year prison term, Spaccia was ordered to pay victim restitution exceeding $8 million, which represented the inflated salaries and cashed-out benefits received by Spaccia, Rizzo and police chief Randy Adams.

In a previous appeal, the Second Court of Appeals reversed Spaccia’s convictions on the five misappropriation counts due to instructional error but otherwise affirmed the judgment.

Prosecutors did not retry on the reversed charges and the court resentenced Spaccia on the remaining charges.

According to court records, Spaccia’s salary jumped from $102,310 annually in 2003 to more than $340,000 annually in 2010. Rizzo’s salary went from approximately $250,000 annually in 2002 to more than $700,000 annually in 2010.

In her second appeal, Spaccia argued court should have vacated the judgment on all counts.

“Because our reversal of the misappropriation convictions was due to instructional error rather than insufficiency of the evidence, Spaccia was subject to retrial on those counts,” Associate Justice Luis Lavin wrote in the opinion.

He said the trial court was not authorized to vacate judgment of conviction to the counts affirmed in the first trial.

“Spaccia’s argument to the contrary is meritless,” Lavin said.

Spaccia argued the appellate court abused its discretion when it ordered her to pay direct victim restitution to the City of Bell in the amount of $8.2 million. She argued the amount was improper because the court reversed the five counts of misappropriation of public funds.

Lavin said the restitution is based on the charges she was convicted on, including payments made to Spaccia and supported by the conflict-of-interest convictions.

Spaccia created three contracts where she had a financial interest, including her own employee contract in 2005, 2006 and 2008. 

She also claimed her prior appointed counsel did not assert numerous arguments and did not challenge the conspiracy, conflict of interest and secreting an official document charges.

“As our prior opinion reveals, the evidence of Spaccia’s guilt on these three conflict-of-interest counts was overwhelming,” Lavin said.

Bell’s current city manager did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday. Spaccia’s attorney declined to comment.

In 2014, Rizzo was sentenced to 12 years in prison and ordered to pay $9 million.

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