Dollars and Sense of the Simpson Trial

Accountant Rick Vandenberg has become an unlikely media star, giving monthly figures on the costs of the O.J. Simpson trial

YOU won't find his home on any Hollywood map of the stars. The maitre d' at trendy Spago Restaurant doesn't know his name. But Rick Vandenberg is achieving his share of stardom -- as a bureaucratic bean-counter.

Mr. Vandenberg is Los Angeles County's chief accountant. His tickets to the big time are two, three-inch white notebooks containing bottom-line information on the hottest show in town -- the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial.

Included is everything from the total cost of the trial, now topping $4.2 million, down to the daily cost of jailing O.J. himself ($46.25).

Every month, when Vandenberg updates the notebooks, news media from around the world arrive at the entrance to his drab third-floor office.

Last week, the British Broadcasting Corporation came calling. After that came a French television crew, followed by the Italians and the Australians.

Even folks around the office see this blend-in-with-the-crowd accountant with new eyes.

''Hey, movie star!'' sings a colleague as the middle-aged number-cruncher strolls by with yet another reporter.

Yet, more than headline-hunting journalists have an interest in the Rodeo Drive costs of the trial. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has already slapped the media with a $27,000 monthly bill for the cost of the Hall of Justice parking lot now bristling with satellite uplinks and editing trucks.

It also wants the state to reimburse the county for a portion of its costs.

''After all,'' points out Vandenberg, ''the warrant reads, 'The State of California,' not 'Los Angeles County.'''

Trial by cost

Vandenberg estimates that the Simpson trial costs could top $6.5 million, but it is still not the county's most expensive trial. Here's a look at some other high-profile local trials:

*The McMartin Preschool molestation case ran six years and cost $13.2 million. Ended January 1990.

*Richard Ramirez, a.k.a. The Night Stalker. $1.8 million. Ended November 1989.

*Murderer and cult leader Charles Manson. $768,838. Ended April 1971.

*Robert Kennedy assassin Sirhan B. Sirhan. $592,806. Ended May 1969.

In the moderate tone of an accountant, Vandenberg points out that ''most of these costs would have been incurred anyway,'' such as salaries for the prosecutors, the deputies, and the myriad assistants.

But certain costs are extra, such as sequestering the jury and departmental overtime.

So far, jury housing has topped $305,242, which includes fully catered meals at the courthouse and hotel as well as round the clock protection by a team of up to eight sheriff's deputies.

Overtime clocked by the District Attorney's office amounted to 1,121 hours for March alone. The Sheriff's Department racked up 3,688 overtime hours in March -- 1,184 more hours than the department put in for regular hours.

The total bill from the District Attorney's office, including some $31,000 monthly for lead prosecutor Marcia Clark: $2.1 million. The sheriff's tab is $1,241,711.

A combination of factors drives up trial costs, such as the duration, the number of lawyers involved, and whether the jury is sequestered.

But, says Robert Pugsley, a professor at Southwestern School of Law in Los Angeles, what few realize is that only 5 percent of the criminal cases in major metropolitan areas even go to trial. Most end in plea-bargains, for good reason.

''If all these cases actually went to trial,'' he says, ''they would bankrupt the system.''

Best that money can buy

In response to those who bristle at the eye-popping cost of justice in L.A., Mr. Pugsley says that wealthy clients have always been able to muster heavy-hitting defense lawyers, much like the touted ''Dream Team'' assembled by O.J. Simpson. A packed defense table necessitates a costlier prosecution.

But few defendants have been as famous. Pugsley says these costs, highlighted by the microscopic trial coverage, should serve as a cautionary tale for the rest of society. ''Every defendant deserves the best base-line defense possible,'' he says. What's on display in the Simpson courtroom gives the extreme example of what that actually means, he adds.

Only the costs of high-profile cases are individually documented. Bean-counter Vandenberg points out, with some pride, that although the Board of Supervisors has had to request figures be kept in the past, he was on top of the Simpson trial from the start.

''If we get an inkling the trial is going to be high-profile, we'll keep tabs on it,'' he says.

Vandenberg does admit, however, that his department dropped the ball on the most recent high-profile case before Simpson, the Menendez Brothers double-murder trial.

''We didn't think it would take off the way it did,'' he says. And, he adds, it's impossible to break out the costs of the trial once it's been under way for a month or longer.

Gray decor

The numbers for the Simpson trial are crunched on the third floor of the County Hall of Records, furnished early bureaucrat: The steps are gray, the walls are gray, the furniture's gray.

And even though the Simpson trial and others like it have brought the white lights of the media into the room, numbers are still what Vandenberg knows best. Ask the youngish accountant how he feels about the Simpson case, and he'll give a cost comparison.

''Taxpayers are getting a decent bang for the buck,'' he says. After all, he adds, ''the county's not working for a profit. If we're paying $4.2 million, what must the defense lawyers be costing O.J?''

And, of course, everything has a cost. Last month, Vandenberg himself put in for 30 hours on the case, up from one hour when the trial began -- which he duly recorded in his white notebooks. Cost of the county auditor for the Simpson trial to date? $12,129.

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