LOS ANGELES (AP) — One of the architects of a massive corruption scandal that nearly bankrupted the modest Los Angeles suburb of Bell was sentenced Thursday to nearly 12 years in prison by a judge who called her a con artist.
Former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia was also ordered to make more than $8 million in restitution to Bell.
Spaccia was the first of seven former public officials to be sentenced for their roles in the scandal that authorities said cost the small, working-class city more than $5.5 million. More than a quarter of Bell’s 36,000 residents live below the federal poverty line.
Former Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley once described the scandal as “corruption on steroids.”
“This was not a one-time lapse of judgment on defendant Spaccia’s part; it was a criminally sophisticated conspiracy that drove the city of Bell to the edge of bankruptcy,” prosecutors wrote in a memo to Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy that sought a sentence of 12 years, eight months.
The judge gave the former official, who has been incarcerated since her conviction, 11 years and eight months. She could have sentenced her to as long as 17 years.
Spaccia was convicted in December of 11 criminal counts, including misappropriation of public funds, conspiracy and falsification of government records.
Authorities said she signed off on contracts and other financial documents as part of the scandal in which taxpayer dollars were illegally diverted to pay her and other top officials huge salaries.
Some of the most damning pieces of evidence introduced at her trial were emails she exchanged with Bell’s former police chief in which she told him the city’s contracts were carefully crafted to avoid disclosing to the public what the officials were paid.
When the newly hired chief said he was looking forward to taking all of Bell’s money, Spaccia replied, “LOL ... well you can take your share of the pie ... just like us. We will all get fat together.”
By the time she was fired by Bell in 2010, Spaccia was making $564,000 a year and her boss, former City Manager Robert Rizzo, had a salary and compensation package of $1.5 million. Five former City Council members were each paid about $100,000 a year.
On Wednesday, former Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez and former City Council members George Cole, Teresa Jacobo, George Mirabal and Victor Bello pleaded no contest to two counts each of misappropriating public funds. They face terms that could range from probation to four years when they are sentenced at separate hearings in June and July.
Rizzo, who pleaded no contest to 69 counts of fraud, misappropriation of public funds and other charges, could face as many as 12 years in prison.
During her trial, Spaccia testified that it was Rizzo who masterminded the scheme. She said she knew she was being paid a lot but didn’t believe it was illegal.
An audit by the state controller’s office found Bell illegally raised property taxes, business license fees and other sources of revenue to keep the salaries flowing. At one point homeowners in Bell, where the annual median household income is about $36,000, paid higher property taxes than people in Beverly Hills.
Thousands of Bell residents organized a recall campaign after learning of the salaries and subsequently voted all of the council members out of office.
Nestor Enrique Valencia, the current mayor of Bell, said he believes Spaccia got off too easily. His city is still struggling financially, Valencia said, and the damage she did to its reputation will likely endure for a generation.
“They’re all going to say, ‘I’m so sorry, feel sorry for me,’” he said of Spaccia and the other defendants. “I think that’s just disingenuous of them and in the community we don’t believe them. They got the money and we’re never going to see that money again.”