LOS ANGELES (CN) – After a Los Angeles County prosecutor argued Wednesday that former Compton, California, Mayor Omar Bradley misappropriated public money by “double-dipping” – using a city credit card and cash advances for travel – a jury will now decide the case.
Bradley’s criminal defense attorney urged the jury to acquit because his client believed all his expenditures were for city business. He said prosecutors had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Bradley knew the purchases were unlawful or that he’d acted with criminal negligence.
The 59-year-old Bradley faces a lifetime ban on holding public office on charges he misappropriated public funds. This is the second time Bradley has been tried on the charges; a California appeals court overturned his conviction in 2012 and prosecutors decided to retry him.
Proceedings began this month in Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge George Lomeli’s courtroom in downtown LA. The defense and prosecution rested on Tuesday, after Bradley had taken the stand during two days of testimony.
Prosecutors say that Bradley used public money for pay-per-view movies, hats, shirts and shorts, green fees, balls, cigars, taxi cab rides and hotels that were not for city business, including a stay in Torrance on the eve of an election.
The period at issue is from 1999 to 2001. Bradley served as Compton’s mayor for two terms between 1993 and 2001.
But Bradley says his spending was always tied to city business and that he never paid for personal expenses with taxpayer money.
The former mayor testified Monday that he had played golf with officials to discuss several city projects, including his work to improve lighting in the city’s streets to reduce crime, plans to turn a disused National Guard armory into a boxing gym, and the creation of a sports and entertainment complex called Oasis.
Many of the receipts shown to jurors during the trial were for nominal charges, and included a $15 charge for a Slazenger golf hat at the California Country Club in Whittier, California, and $288 spent on shorts, a shirt, and green fees at the Rancho Bernardo Inn in San Diego. LA County Deputy District Attorney Ana Lopez told jurors the evidence suggests that Bradley’s golf games could have been for personal pleasure rather than city business.
Calling the matter a “simple case of fraud,” Lopez pleaded with jurors to find Bradley guilty on two felony counts of misappropriation of public funds.
She said that while purchases appeared small, it was important for the public to demand “absolute honesty” from their elected officials in how they handle taxpayer funds. She said the total amount for Bradley’s double billing – using a city credit card and cash advances – totaled almost $4,000.
“Superficially it may seem that it’s a small amount. But the principal looms large,” Lopez said during her closing argument on Wednesday. “A public official is not royalty” and there are no “kings or queens of Compton,” she added.
She said Bradley’s rationale for the purchases betrayed a “childlike” man who was “visceral in his lies.”
Bradley has insisted that he needed to meet officials at golf courses to avoid interruptions and because he had received death threats that made his City Hall office unsafe on weekends. He also told jurors he was not much of a golfer and that most of his meetings were with city spokesman and entertainment attorney Frank Wheaton, and were “spur of the moment.”
Bradley’s claim that he bought hats, divot tools, and other attire because he was not dressed appropriately to play golf strained credibility, Lopez said. Items Bradley purchased at the California Country Club in Whittier, the Rancho Bernardo Inn in San Diego, the Hidden Valley Golf Club in Norco and the Coto de Caza golf club were collectibles emblazoned with logos. When Bradley bought two divot tools, plastic tools were available free of charge, she said.
“For a man who doesn’t play golf, he plays an awful lot of golf,” Lopez said.
Bradley has argued that only convicted City Manager John Johnson could authorize expenditures below $5,000, and that he had no control over approving or not approving expenses. When he made a purchase, he said, it was with the expectation that Johnson would approve it or not. But Lopez said that as mayor, Bradley had the power to hire and fire Johnson, and that it was Bradley who was in the driver’s seat despite his claim that Johnson controlled his spending.
“You’re wrong, Mr. Bradley. You’re the last word,” Lopez said. “This jury is the last word.”
In a rambling closing argument, Bradley’s attorney Robert Hill said Bradley “subjectively believed in his heart and subjectively believed in his mind” that the expenditures, refunds, and handling of the funds were authorized.
His explanation was “objectively reasonable,” and jurors should therefore rule that Bradley had not knowingly broken the law or was guilty of criminal negligence.
“There is a line. But these aren’t close to the line,” Hill said of his client’s purchases. “They weren’t Burger King but they weren’t the fanciest of things. We’re talking about golf balls.”
He argued that if Bradley had intended to misappropriate public money, he would have used cash advances instead of leaving a paper trail with the city credit card. Instead of a pattern of deception, there was pattern of honesty, Hill said, recalling how Bradley bought some steelhead golf clubs with a city credit card but then paid the money back the next day.
“Mr. Bradley was transparent in his actions – conspicuous, open, transparent,” Hill said.
The attorney also criticized Lopez for diminishing Bradley and calling him a child, pointing to his experience as a politician, high school teacher, and assistant superintendent of Lynwood Unified School District.
“That’s not the work of the child. That’s insulting.” Hill said.
He urged the jurors to find Bradley not guilty on both counts.
“Lift these charges from Mr. Bradley. Send him on his way and restore his good name,” Hill said. “I ask for your not-guilty vote. That’s the right vote in this case.”
Hill said in May that Bradley had already served the entirety of his sentence before the appeals court’s reversal.
This year, Bradley took on incumbent Compton Mayor Aja Brown in the June 6, 2017, general election. Brown prevailed.
One of the oldest cities in Los Angeles County, Compton today is a mostly working-class city with some middle-class neighborhoods. It 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 gained notoriety in the 1980s, when rap group N.W.A. documented the state of the city in its debut record “Straight Outta Compton.” 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.
Jurors will begin deliberations on Thursday morning.