Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Robert Rizzo, former Bell city manager, pleads no contest in corruption case

City Corruption

Irfan Khan/AP

FILE - This March 9, 2011 file image shows former Bell City Administrator Robert Rizzo listens in court in Los Angeles. Rizzo, who masterminded a corruption scheme that paid exorbitant salaries to city officials, pleaded no contest, Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, to all 69 charges brought against him. (AP Photo/Irfan Khan, Pool, file)

Robert Rizzo — the onetime Bell city manager who secured outsized salaries for himself, council members and staffers  — pleaded no contest to 69 public corruption charges, the Los Angeles District Attorney's office said Thursday.

Rizzo made the plea on his own and not as a result of a plea deal, according to a statement from the district attorney's office. Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy said in court she would sentence Rizzo to between 10 and 12 years when he returns to court March 12.

District Attorney spokeswoman Jane Robison said Rizzo would cooperate as a witness if called upon to testify in the trial of his former assistant city manager, Angela Spaccia. Jury selection in that case begins Monday, Oct. 7.

"Mr. Rizzo is trying to send a clear message that he accepts responsibility for wrongdoing," said his attorney, James Spertus, the Associated Press reported. "He made mistakes, and he's trying to make amends for that."

Rizzo became the face of a widespread city government scandal after it was revealed in 2010 that he was giving himself an annual salary and benefits package of $1.5 million. His $800,000 in wages alone was double that of the president of the United States.

When he was arrested, he was living in an expensive home in the upscale oceanfront community of Huntington Beach and owned a thoroughbred horse ranch in Washington state. He posted $2 million bail to get out of jail.

Authorities said he paid most members of the City Council some $100,000 a year, even though the panel meets only about twice a month to handle matters for the city of about 35,000 people.

Rizzo, 59, is scheduled to be sentenced on March 12 and expected to be sent to prison for 10 to 12 years.

Spertus said Rizzo expects to plead guilty to federal tax charges and resolve a lawsuit filed by the state attorney's general.

The lawyer said Rizzo entered the plea in state court to have a fair sentence and return to his family with his legal problems behind him.

Rizzo could reasonably expect to be released on parole in five to six years, he said.

Spertus said Rizzo also plans to cooperate with authorities still prosecuting other figures in the Bell corruption scandal, including his former top assistant, Angela Spaccia.

The plea, just days before Rizzo and Spaccia were set to go on trial together Monday, "totally surprised" her, said Spaccia's attorney, Harland Braun.

"We're going to go to trial," he said. "She's innocent. We gave her a polygraph test and turned it over to the district attorney."

District Attorney Jackie Lacey said prosecutors had cut no plea deals with Rizzo

"Although we were prepared to go to trial and felt confident we could convict Mr. Rizzo of all charges, we are pleased he chose to admit his guilt and accept full responsibility for the irreparable harm he caused the people of Bell," Lacey said in a statement.

Braun said separating Spaccia's trial from Rizzo's should benefit her by simplifying the case and weakening prosecutors' presentation against her. He said Rizzo's testimony about what happened in Bell could also help Spaccia, who is charged with 13 counts of fraud.

Authorities say Spaccia was paid more than $375,000 a year.

Bell City Councilman Ali Saleh -- who served two years as mayor after the disgraced council was recalled -- said it was "bittersweet" to see Rizzo plead no contest. The plea would deprive him and Bell residents of the trial that could have answered a lot of their questions about how this all came about. He said he hopes Rizzo will testify against Spaccia and the remaining City Council members.
 
Bell has an extended fiscal hangover from the excesses of the Rizzo regime. The city still owes about $100 million in bond debt that Rizzo and the council issued. The city might be able to sell a piece of land to retire about one-third of that debt by the end of the year. Meanwhile, the city property taxes remain among the highest in the county, up there with industrial Vernon and ritzy Beverly Hills. The city just can't afford to lower the taxes while so much debt remains on the books, Saleh said.

Last March, five former Bell City Council members were convicted of fraud charges after jurors determined they paid themselves salaries for sitting on boards and commissions that did no work and existed only to pay the defendants. The council members had blamed Rizzofor that, saying he assured them they were doing nothing wrong.

Authorities accused Rizzo of diverting gas taxes and other funds into accounts used to pay the exorbitant salaries and of illegally raising Bell property taxes to among the highest in Los Angeles County even though Bell is one of its poorest cities.

He was also charged with falsifying municipal documents to hide officials' true salaries when residents became suspicious.

When residents learned the truth, they mounted a recall campaign and voted every council member out of office. By then the council had fired Rizzo and Spaccia.

Bell was nearly driven to the brink of insolvency when the state controller ordered that the wrongfully collected taxes be refunded.

Although a no-contest plea does not admit guilt, Rizzo acknowledged making serious mistakes during his long tenure as Bell's city manager, Spertus said.

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