LOS ANGELES (AP) – An attorney in a municipal corruption case that nearly bankrupted a struggling Los Angeles suburb complained bitterly in court Friday about a judge’s decision to allow the chief defendant to plead no contest in an unannounced hearing.
Attorney Harland Braun told Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy that she improperly injected herself into the case by brokering a plea deal with former Bell city manager Robert Rizzo.
Rizzo, who faced a possible 70 years in prison, was assured by the judge he would receive a sentence of 10 to 12 years, prosecutors said.
Braun represents Rizzo’s former top assistant, Angela Spaccia, whose trial is set to begin with jury selection next week. Braun said the judge’s decision was predicated on Rizzo’s agreement to cooperate with prosecutors in the trials of Spaccia and others charged in the Bell scandal.
“This is a sick stunt,” Braun said. “He has obviously made a deal to drag down Angela in order to get a light sentence.”
In a phone interview later in the day, Spaccia said she is terrified because she knows prosecutors want to send her to prison “for crimes I didn’t commit.” Still, she said she doesn’t want her trial delayed any further.
“I’m ready. It’s time,” she said.
Of Rizzo, she said, “I hope he testifies because if he testifies honestly I will be exonerated.”
Kennedy said there were no negotiations before Rizzo walked into court and entered his plea to all 69 counts on Thursday. Rizzo was charged with stealing more than $5 million from the blue-collar suburb. Prosecutors said they had nothing to do with the plea deal.
Braun said the judge and prosecutors, along with Rizzo’s attorney, made sure the press did not know about Rizzo’s plea until after the hearing was over. He said even he was not notified and learned of the development when someone tweeted his client about it.
Braun suggested Friday that the judge recuse herself, but Kennedy refused.
“When the prosecution says they didn’t make a deal and your honor made some kind of deal, that’s a very dangerous situation,” said Braun.
He said Spaccia would go forward with jury selection in her trial Monday. With Rizzo no longer a defendant, he said it will be a shorter trial.
Outside court, Braun said Spaccia plans to testify in her own defense and said she now realizes she was being paid too much when she collected more than $375,000 a year in her job. She is charged with 13 counts of corruption that involved holding the purse strings for the city accounts.
Rizzo’s lawyer said Rizzo would testify against Spaccia, blaming her for the brazen financial corruption scandal that drove Bell to the brink of bankruptcy.
“Mr. Rizzo, up until the time Angela Spaccia started with the city, made reasonable salaries,” attorney James Spertus said. “Mr. Rizzo doesn’t know how the retirement fund worked, how the salaries are processed.”
Spertus said Spaccia changed the way business was done in Bell and was the brains behind the financial scheme.
Braun told reporters that Rizzo cut a “sweetheart deal” that would allow him to serve time in a minimum-security federal prison and reasonably expect to be released in five years.
Rizzo was charged with stealing more than $5 million from Bell, a modest city where one in four people live below the federal poverty line.
Rizzo became symbolic of the widespread city government scandal after it was revealed in 2010 that he was giving himself an annual salary and benefits package of $1.5 million. His $800,000 salary alone was double that of the president of the United States.
When he was arrested, he was living in an expensive home in the upscale oceanfront community of Huntington Beach and owned a thoroughbred horse ranch in Washington state. He posted $2 million bail to get out of jail.
Authorities said Rizzo paid most members of the City Council some $100,000 a year, even though the panel meets only about twice a month to handle matters for the city of about 35,000 people.
Rizzo, 59, is scheduled to be sentenced March 12.
Meanwhile, a state appeals court ruled Friday that the city of Bell won’t have to pay Rizzo’s legal fees in civil or criminal cases, said Bell City Manager Doug Willmore.
“The city is of the belief that Rizzo stole millions of dollars from its coffers; the idea that the city must pay Rizzo additional funds in order (to) provide him a defense against the very actions seeking to obtain justice for the city is unacceptable,” Willmore said.
Five former members of the Bell City Council who face trial on corruption charges unresolved in an earlier trial were present in court Friday, and many of them hugged Spaccia and each other. They were told to return for a pretrial hearing Dec. 13.
Spaccia said she also believes in the innocence of the council members and hopes the outcome of her case will help them.
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