LOS ANGELES (CN) – Former Mayor Omar Bradley, of the LA-area city of Compton, testified Monday that he had only ever used public funds for city business – not personal expenses – and that only the city manager could authorize use of the funds.
Bradley, 59, is being retried on charges he used taxpayer funds for personal expenses for golf products and other items he bought while traveling on city business. County prosecutors have charged him with two felony counts of misappropriation of public funds, claiming he double-billed for expenses using a city credit card and cash advances.
Bradley won a postponement of his trial to this month as he took on incumbent Aja Brown in the June 6 general election for mayor. Brown prevailed.
The former official was convicted of misappropriation and misuse of public funds in 2004. Eight years later, a California appeals court overturned his conviction after the California Supreme Court found prosecutors have to make clear that defendants know they are breaking the law in charges related to the theft of public funds. Councilman Amen Rahh and former City Manager John Johnson were also convicted for charging personal items on government-issued credit cards.
A mainstay of the Compton political scene since the early 1990s, Bradley has pleaded not guilty. His attorney Robert Hill has argued during retrial that the claims against his client are false.
Deputy District Attorney Ana Lopez meanwhile contends Bradley is guilty of using taxpayers’ money for personal expenses during a period that began in 1999 and ended in 2001.
During his testimony Monday, Bradley struck a congenial figure on the stand, smiling frequently and at one point swelling with emotion as he recalled giving a keynote speech at Amherst College. Suffering from a cold, he took breaks at regular intervals to cough into a handkerchief or tissue.
Bradley testified he was well aware of the city’s limits on official spending and knew the city’s charter, municipal code as well as resolutions on credit card spending.
“I had been mayor for eight years, so there were certain things you knew intrinsically,” Bradley told his criminal defense attorney Robert Hill.
Dressed in a gray suit, cream-white shirt and tie, Bradley testified he was aware that approval was needed for any spending over $5,000. Only Johnson had the authority to authorize expenditures, Bradley said.
“If anything cost more than $5,000 it had to come to the public,” Bradley said. “We had no independent spending authority.”
When Hill asked him if an outside authority had ever warned him that his expenditures were improper, Bradley did not pause.
“No, sir,” he said.
Hill asked about several business trips involving Bradley, including a 1999 conference with the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington where Bradley stayed at the Grand Hyatt; a trip to Tennessee for a National Alliance of Black School Educators conference; a stay in Las Vegas for a gaming meeting; a League of Cities meeting in Anaheim; and the trip to Amherst in Massachusetts.
A former school teacher, Bradley teared up as he explained how one of his former students had become president of the Latino student union and had asked him if he would deliver a keynote speech for black history month.
Bradley said the city manager had authorized cash advances for trips on city business and that he had spent the money on food, taxi fares, and weather-appropriate clothing such as hats and gloves when traveling in the winter. Bradley said he never received receipts for reimbursements.
The former mayor acknowledged he bought golf clubs during a meeting. But he said he was at the golf course to discuss city business and was working on a project to acquire championship rings for the high school basketball team.
“I bought the clubs to offer as a reward for those who would give donations to buy the kids’ rings if they ended up winning the national championship,” Bradley explained.
He said he paid back the money the next day. The golf clubs were the only item that the city manager did not approve, he said.
On other occasions, Bradley said he bought a pair of cheap golf shoes at a club because staff told him that his shoes with spikes were not allowed. Bradley said he decided to do city business on golf courses to avoid constant interruptions.
“I know it’s hard to believe, but at one point I was somewhat popular,” Bradley quipped.
He said the city business had included efforts to improve lighting in the city’s streets to reduce crime, turn a disused National Guard armory into a boxing gym to stop gang members from shooting each other, and create a sports and entertainment complex called Oasis.
Bradley also said he had received death threats while serving as mayor and that it was not safe for him to meet at his offices at City Hall on weekends.
During cross-examination on Monday afternoon, Lopez asked Bradley if the City Council had the responsibility to investigate the city manager for violating the city charter.
“City Council does not have the independent legal capacity to determine if a charter violation has occurred. That would be the city attorney,” Bradley said.
Bradley told the Press-Telegram this year that he had served his three-year sentence in prison and a halfway house. Hill said this past May that Bradley had already served the entirety of his sentence before the appeals court’s reversal.
The former mayor still faces a lifetime ban from holding public office, if convicted.
He served from 1993 to 2001 and ran again unsuccessfully in 2013.
Lopez is expected to continue her cross-examination on Tuesday morning in Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge George Lomeli’s courtroom.
One of the oldest cities in Los Angeles County, Compton today is a mostly working-class city with some middle-class neighborhoods. It also boasts a young population with residents averaging 25 years of age, compared to the national median of 35.
After the 1965 Watts riots, crime in Compton rose exponentially and by the 1980s, its notorious gang violence was being documented by rap groups Compton’s Most Wanted and N.W.A. Crime has since stabilized, spurred in large part by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department’s “Gifts for Guns” program that paid residents to turn in their firearms.
An economic research firm recently dubbed Compton as an “entrepreneurial hot spot,” and it ranks as LA County’s second-best city to start and grow a business.