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Court reverses corruption counts in California city scandal

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A state appeals court on Friday reversed five of 11 criminal counts against an official convicted in a scheme to bilk millions of dollars from a small California city.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled that jurors received erroneous instructions before they convicted former Bell Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia of misappropriating public funds.

“It’s a significant victory for her,” said Harland Braun, her attorney. “She’s very grateful.”

The court upheld six other charges against Spaccia, including two counts of hiding public records.

Spaccia and several other former officials were accused of bilking the blue-collar Los Angeles suburb of millions of dollars through a long-running scheme to pay themselves hugely inflated salaries they hid from the public.

Bell’s former city manager, Robert Rizzo, pleaded no contest to 69 corruption counts and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

District attorney spokesman Greg Risling said prosecutors were reviewing the court’s opinion and will make a decision on a possible retrial after considering the legal options.

Braun said he doubts prosecutors would refile charges because Spaccia, who was incarcerated following her 2013 conviction, has already been released from prison.

She is living under house arrest and working full-time at an office job in Los Angeles, Braun said, adding that she’s expected to be paroled in December.

During sentencing, Spaccia was ordered to repay Bell more than $8 million, but Braun said she’s broke.

When she and others were arrested in 2010, Spaccia was making $564,000 a year in salary and benefits, according to court documents. Spaccia said in testimony that Rizzo masterminded the scheme and was making $1.2 million a year.

An audit by the state controller’s office found the exorbitant salaries were funded by illegally raising property taxes, business license fees and other sources of revenue.

At one point, property taxes in Bell, where the average annual household income is $37,000, were higher than Beverly Hills.

Current City Councilman Ali Saleh, one of a handful of residents who suspected abuse and pressed for years for reform, said he was disappointed in the appeals court ruling.

“The 40,000 residents in the city of Bell know that Spaccia and Rizzo deliberately schemed together to defraud the community,” he said. “Spaccia should be ashamed of herself.”

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