Ex-official pleads no contest to Bell corruption

AP News
Posted: Oct 03, 2013 7:09 PM
Ex-official pleads no contest to Bell corruption

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A disgraced former city manager accused of masterminding a brazen municipal corruption scandal that drove a modest Los Angeles suburb to the brink of bankruptcy pleaded no contest Thursday to 69 counts of fraud, misappropriation of public funds and other charges.

Robert Rizzo was charged with stealing more than $5 million from the blue-collar city of Bell, where one in four people live below the federal poverty line.

"Mr. Rizzo is trying to send a clear message that he accepts responsibility for wrongdoing," said his attorney, James Spertus. "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 that in the weeks ahead, his client also plans to plead guilty to federal tax charges and resolve a lawsuit filed by the state attorney's general. Spertus anticipates that Rizzo will be allowed to serve any possible sentence on the tax charges concurrently with the fraud term and could reasonably expect to be released on parole in five to six years.

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.

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.

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 Rizzo for 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 property taxes to one of the highest levels in Los Angeles County even though Bell is one of its poorest cities.

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

The salaries came to light in 2010 after Rizzo released them to the Los Angeles Times. He had stalled the newspaper's reporters for weeks until they threatened to have their attorneys demand the documents under California public records law. The Times won a Pulitzer Prize for uncovering the scandal.

Subsequent investigations raised allegations that the city's police officers were pressured to stop young Hispanic drivers and have their cars towed, and that voters were intimidated by police officers into casting absentee ballots for City Council candidates favored by Rizzo.

All of it was allegedly done, authorities said, to keep money flowing into the city treasury so Rizzo could pay himself and his political cronies. Those allegations remain under investigation.

As more allegations surfaced, angry residents complained that their modest city of just 2.5 square miles had been widely embarrassed. Friends and relatives from across the country and even other countries called them, they said, to ask what had happened.

A recall campaign ended with every council member being voted out of office. By then, the council had fired Rizzo and Spaccia.

Longtime Bell resident Ali Saleh, a leader of the recall campaign, expressed mixed feelings about Rizzo's plea.

"This is a bittersweet moment for the residents of Bell," said Saleh, now a member of the Bell City Council. "We have really fought hard and have been waiting for over three years for this moment, but the reality is that without a trial we don't get to learn more about how deep the corruption went and who all was involved."

It will take several more years before Bell recovers financially, he said.


AP Special Correspondent Linda Deutsch contributed to this story.