Former Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo, who pleaded no contest to bilking taxpayers in the blue collar city of Bell on the edge of Los Angeles by masterminding a scheme to pad government paychecks, was sentenced Wednesday morning to 12 years in state prison and nearly $9 million in restitution. The judge also said that Rizzo can never hold public office again.
Rizzo spoke at the hearing, saying he was sorry for what he had done. He told the judge that he "began to breach the public trust" and that "I am so sorry for that. I will never do anything like this again."
Rizzo's lawyer James Spertus told the judge "This is not a defendant feigning tears on the stand," but Deputy District Attorney Sean Hassett said, "While I appreciate Mr. Rizzo's mea culpa," he still wants Rizzo to receive a lengthy sentence and be ordered to pay back more than $8 million.
Kennedy told Rizzo after his apology, "It's good to say you're sorry. But it doesn’t change the fact you did some very bad things for a very long time."
Kennedy said "all of it was illegal" and ordered Rizzo to pay back his entire salary for a total of nearly $9 million. Kennedy described Rizzo as "a godfather-like character. People would come to him when they were in need and ask for loans." She added, "No one wanted to upset the apple cart. People were paid amounts that were absolutely ridiculous for the jobs they were doing."
The judge allowed Rizzo to remain free until May 30, when he must surrender to start his sentence. "I would not trust his word" to surrender, " judge Kennedy said, "but I would take 3 million reasons." The bail for Rizzo was set at $3 million. He's set to serve his state prison term and his federal term for income tax evasion concurrently.
Unlike Rizzo, his chief assistant Angela Spaccia — who was sentenced last week to 11 years, 8 months in prison — was taken in an orange jumpsuit and chains directly to jail following her sentencing.
Bell residents also testified at Rizzo's sentencing hearing, with one resident telling the judge that Rizzo preyed on the people of Bell and that he deserves as much time in prison as he can get.
"He is dangerous. He has robbed and stolen from more people" than a common crook, said one resident at the hearing.
Before the hearing, residents said no sentence would be too long for a former official convicted of masterminding a corruption scandal that nearly bankrupted the city, the Associated Press reports.
The veteran city administrator's name became synonymous with municipal greed after it was revealed in 2010 that he was giving himself an annual salary and benefits package of $1.5 million, the AP reports. His $800,000 in wages alone was double that of the president of the United States.
Rizzo pleaded no contest in October to 69 counts of conspiracy, misappropriation of public funds, falsification of public records and other charges for the scheme in the city where a quarter of the population lives below the federal poverty line, the AP reports.
At the time, he offered to help prosecutors convict his chief assistant Spaccia, the AP reports, who was later sentenced to nearly 12 years in prison.
On Monday, Rizzo was sentenced separately to 33 months in federal prison for income tax evasion after he acknowledged reporting more than $700,000 in phony deductions to reduce tax liability on money authorities say he stole from Bell, the AP reports.
Before the sentencing, defense attorney Spertus said Rizzo's acknowledgement of his wrongdoing and offer to help prosecutors warrants a sentence of no more than five years in the corruption case, according to the AP.
"By imposing a sentence on Mr. Rizzo that contrasts sharply with the 11.5-year sentence already imposed on Ms. Spaccia, the court can send an appropriate message to the public: acceptance of responsibility and cooperation matter," Spertus said.
However, in Bell's main business district, at its community center and elsewhere, residents and business people were nearly unanimous in their opinion that nothing short of a life sentence would be sufficient for what Rizzo had done to them, according to the AP.
"Is he going to get life? He should. He never cared about us, all he cared about was our money," said recent Bell High School graduate Jose Morales, the AP reports, who was riding his skateboard outside the community center on Tuesday because Bell is now so broke it can't reopen its only skate park.
Authorities said the city of 36,000 was looted of more than $5.5 million by a number of officials, according to the AP.
Spertus has indicated that Spaccia, as the official who drew up illegal employment contracts that gave Rizzo his salary and benefits and herself $564,000, played perhaps an equal role in the scam, the AP reports. Most of the City Council members were also making about $100,000 a year for meeting about once a month. They face terms ranging from probation to four years in prison when they are sentenced later this year.
Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey has called the scandal the biggest municipal corruption case her office ever prosecuted, the AP reports. Residents were so angry that thousands marched on City Hall to scream at the officials, and a few months after the scandal broke, they held a recall election and tossed them out of office.
It was Rizzo who told those officials what to do, said licensed tax preparer Maria Berumen, the AP reports, who sat in her office and ticked off a litany of misdeeds investigators uncovered.
An audit by the state controller's office found Bell illegally raised property taxes, business license fees, sewage fees and trash collection fees; illegally diverted gas taxes and other state and federal funds; and issued $50 million in voter-approved municipal bonds for a public park that was never built, the AP reports.
A good portion of that money, auditors found, went into the lucrative salaries and pensions that Rizzo, Spaccia and other top officials collected, the AP reports.
"The city of Bell's internal control system was virtually non-existent," state Controller John Chiang said when the audit was issued, the AP reports. "All of the city's financial activities and transactions evolved around one individual — the former chief administrative officer."
That officer? Robert Rizzo.
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