USC Trojans Football

The USC Trojans take the field for a 2014 game against Notre Dame at the Coliseum. (Mark J. Terrill / AP Photo)

Paul Pringle and Rong-Gong Lin II
August 6, 2016

The alleged bribes and kickbacks that prosecutors said flowed like honey between government officials at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and people who did business at the venerable stadium exceeded $2 million — cash that belonged to the taxpayers.

Some of the money was funneled in regular installments through a Miami bank account, a detail redolent of a film noir script.

A grand jury returned a sweeping list of felony charges. Named in the indictments were three managers at the publicly owned Coliseum, two prominent promoters of rave concerts at the venue and a janitorial contractor who quickly became a fugitive. All were facing long prison stretches if convicted.

Now, however, the case that grew out of a Times investigation in 2011 has become the latest embarrassment for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, which had already racked up a number of missteps and setbacks in other high-profile, government corruption prosecutions.

A series of blunders by two separate teams of prosecutors in the Coliseum saga, who have acknowledged twice mishandling evidence, forced them to the bargaining table with defense attorneys.

As a result, the concert promoters have been allowed to plead no contest to misdemeanor counts in deals that guarantee they will not spend a single day behind bars.

The main defendant in the case, former Coliseum events manager Todd DeStefano, who was accused of pocketing the bulk of the money, pleaded no contest to one felony count Friday. As part of a settlement with prosecutors, he will serve six months in county jail and pay $500,000 in restitution.

If convicted at a trial, DeStefano could have received a 10-year prison sentence.

“It appears that the prosecutors are cutting their losses,” said Gerald Uelmen, a retired Santa Clara University law school professor. He said the bungling of evidence by the district attorney’s Public Integrity Division likely caused the office to fear the case otherwise could get tossed out entirely due to prosecutorial misconduct.

In an unusually sharp rebuke, Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy said the division seemed incapable of handling complex prosecutions involving large numbers of documents.

The main prosecutor, Dana Aratani, was removed from the case last year after he acknowledged inappropriately viewing emails between one of the defendants and his lawyer, a violation of attorney-client privilege rules. Last week, Aratani’s replacement, Terrie Tengelsen, said she had contact with him about the case, despite a promise to the judge not to do so.

Stanford Law School professor Robert Weisberg said the prosecutors’ error was “very rare and it’s really bad — a real no-no.”

Plainly furious, Kennedy urged the district attorney’s office to seek settlements with the defendants. “They have no justification for what they did,” she said of the prosecutors.

Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey declined to be interviewed, but issued a statement Friday praising the work of the anti-corruption division.

“The fact that we erred in our handling of voluminous evidence in one case does not mean that we are not capable of prosecuting these types of cases,” Lacey said. “We handle thousands of complex cases successfully each year and will continue to improve our methods. The resolution of this case resulted in the defendants being appropriately held accountable for their actions.

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