'Corruption on Steroids' Case Reaches Verdict

PHOTO: From left, Robert Rizzo, Angela Spaccia, Victor Bello and former Mayor Oscar Hernandez Al Seib/AFP/Getty Images
From left, former and current Bell city employees Robert Rizzo, Angela Spaccia, Victor Bello and former Mayor Oscar Hernandez attend a bail reduction hearing on Sept. 22, 2010 in Los Angeles.

Before there was the financial meltdown of Detroit, of Stockton or of San Bernardino, there was the near death-spiral of Bell, Calif. -- a victim of a corruption scandal in which city officials paid themselves such outrageous salaries that the city almost went broke.

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Now, with the sentencing this week of Bell's former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia, the town's travails have wound down. On Monday a jury found Spaccia guilty of conspiracy and misappropriation of public funds, among other charges.

Guilty verdict in California city corruption trial.

Deputy District Attorney Sean Hassett says Spaccia faces up to 17 years in prison.

According to The Associated Press, Spaccia testified that she probably was making too much money when her salary exceeded $340,000 a year.

Bell has a population of 35,000. One in four residents lives below the poverty line.

In a news conference after the sentencing, District Attorney Jackie Lacey, referring to the collective theft by the city's officials, said this had been the most significant corruption case her office had ever prosecuted. Bell's former city officials, she said, had perpetrated what she called "grand theft by paycheck" amounting to $6 million.

The scandal, described by the Los Angeles Times as "corruption on steroids," first made headlines in 2010. But it began earlier, in 1988, when Robert Rizzo, then the town manager for Hesperia, Calif., got hired as the manager for Bell. According to the Los Angeles Times, Rizzo got the job in part because he had been willing to work for less money than other candidates.

Over time, according to prosecutors, Rizzo's salary and benefits package ballooned to $12 million. He allegedly secured the cooperation of his fellow officials by offering them similarly rich rewards. The city's former police chief, for example, got compensation of $457,000 a year. City council members each received $100,000.

The state of California brought suit in 2010, accusing Rizzo and other city leaders of plotting to enrich themselves and to conceal their compensation. Five former council members have since been convicted of fraud.

Rizzo eventually pleaded no contest to 69 charges, leaving Spaccia to stand trial alone.

Hassett told the AP that Spaccia had been unrepentant. Regarding her salary, her attorney, Harland Braun, said, "When something seems too good to be true, it is too good to be true. She realizes that now." An attempt by ABC News to reach Braun for further comment was not successful.

Corruption probe nets indictments of 18 L.A. Sheriff's deputies.

Rizzo, who is scheduled to be sentenced this March, could face up to 12 years in prison. Separately he is being investigated for tax fraud charges by federal officials.

Rizzo's attorney, James Spertus, tells ABC News: "Mr. Rizzo accepted responsibility and is trying to make things right, while Ms. Spaccia continues to deny responsibility for any wrongdoing and continues to blame others. Hopefully, the ultimate sentences in these cases will reflect these differences. Ms. Spaccia is far more deserving of punishment than Mr. Rizzo."

So far, says Spertus, not one of the defendants has been asked to make restitution. "There have been no orders yet. It happens at sentencing, and Mr. Rizzo will try to make full restitution."