Convictions thrown out for 4 LA-area city officials accused of embezzlement for ritzy NY trips

LOS ANGELES, Calif. – A Southern California appeals court on Thursday threw out the embezzlement convictions of four officials from the small city of Irwindale who were found guilty of spending thousands of taxpayer dollars on baseball games and Broadway shows in New York.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal said in its decision that the four officials spent “shocking” amounts of city money and showed an “abuse of the public trust.” But the court said Los Angeles County prosecutors withheld two key documents from the grand jury that indicted them.

The documents “arguably would have shown that there was no deceit whatsoever,” the court wrote.

Five embezzlement counts apiece were thrown out for Councilman Mark Breceda, Finance Director Abe De Dios, retired City Manager Steve Blancarte and former Councilwoman Rosemary Ramirez.

During trips to New York between 2001 and 2005, prosecutors say the four went to New York with the intent of improving the city’s bond rating but spent much of their time attending Broadway musicals like “Wicked” and New York Yankees baseball games. On one trip, the group stayed at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and ran up a bill of $62,000.

Prosecutors said the trips were paid for a by a third party who was then reimbursed by the city.

But defence attorneys said their clients were unaware of the reimbursements and the appellate court agreed there was little evidence they wilfully cheated the city.

Prosecutors instead focused on a daily $75 food allotment each official received from the city, accusing them of “double-dipping” by claiming reimbursement money from Irwindale even when others had paid.

But the two city documents withheld from the grand jury instructed city officials to claim the reimbursement no matter who had paid.

“While greed and fraudulent intent may be siblings, they certainly are not identical twins,” Justice Jeffrey W. Johnson wrote.

Deputy District Attorney Max Huntsman said the ruling is just a setback, and prosecutors would now explore all their options for new charges or indictments.

Defence attorneys expressed hope the matter was over.

“There was simply insufficient evidence across the board to show that our clients intended to embezzle money from the city,” Breceda’s lawyer, Anthony Falangetti, told City News Service.