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Defense: Bell Official Overpaid, But Not Criminal

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Former Bell city official Angela Spaccio at her corruption trial. (Getty Images)

Former Bell city official Angela Spaccio at her corruption trial. (Getty Images)

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Being overpaid is not a crime, a lawyer for Angela Spaccia argued Thursday, citing high salaries of professional athletes and actors as examples while acknowledging that the assistant city manager of the tiny city of Bell was paid a “staggering” salary.

Attorney Harland Braun said Spaccia may have exercised poor judgment in accepting compensation from the tiny city of Bell that soared to $564,000 at its peak.

“I’ve told you I find the amounts of money here are staggering. But where is the crime?” Braun said. “It’s not a crime to take a lawful benefit, even if it’s outrageous.”

He asked jurors, “If someone offered you two or three times what you are making, wouldn’t you take it? He then cited salaries of actors and athletes.

“What is someone worth?” he asked. “What is anyone worth?”

He pointed to Spaccia’s boss, former City Manager Robert Rizzo, as the real culprit in the Bell scandal and disclosed to jurors, who had not been told previously, that Rizzo had made a plea deal.

“Where is Rizzo?” he asked repeatedly, suggesting prosecutors should have called him as a witness.

Braun described Rizzo as a gifted city manager who made great changes in Bell until he became greedy and dictatorial.

“There were no checks and balances, and he became a law unto himself,” he said.

Braun said Rizzo was the only one who could approve contracts and Spaccia had no power to override his orders. He denied that she wrote her own employment contracts, a conflict of interest.

“In order to misappropriate funds, you have to have the authority to appropriate,” he said, contending she didn’t have that.

Braun also accused the prosecutor’s office of playing politics when they arrested Spaccia, Rizzo and other officials at a time when former District Attorney Steve Cooley was running for state Attorney General.

Cooley had dubbed the Bell case, “Corruption on steroids.” He lost the race.

Braun spoke after Deputy District Attorney Max Huntsman concluded his final argument, accusing Spaccia and Rizzo of milking the “cash cow” of the small city of Bell.

Following a prosecution rebuttal argument, the case will go to the jury Friday. Spaccia faces 13 counts of misappropriation of public funds, conflict of interest and other charges.

Huntsman accused Spaccia of doing an “audition” for her job as assistant city manager by showing Rizzo how he could collect 100 percent of his huge salary in retirement.

“That’s how she got her foot in the door,” the prosecutor said of her hiring in 2003, the beginning of her seven-year tenure in which she and Rizzo saw their salaries soar.

By the time they were fired in 2010, Rizzo was receiving an annual salary and benefits package worth $1.18 million and Spaccia was getting $564,000. Their salaries were higher than that of the president of the United States for running the tiny, blue-collar suburb where many of the 35,000 residents live below the federal poverty line.

“They had worked out a very nice retirement program,” Huntsman said. “They didn’t need to work. But they didn’t want to walk away from this cash cow.”

Rizzo has pleaded no contest to 69 corruption charges, removing him as a co-defendant with Spaccia.

Spaccia, who testified in her own defense for seven days, said she was just following Rizzo’s orders and did nothing criminal.

Huntsman said the City Council didn’t question anything because they too were being paid exorbitant amounts for little work. Five of them were convicted in a separate corruption trial.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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