California official at center of pay scandal pleads guilty to tax charges

Reuters News
Posted: Jan 13, 2014 6:58 PM

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A former city manager already facing up to 12 years in state prison for his role in a scandal in Bell, California, that made him a symbol of local government corruption pleaded guilty on Monday to federal tax charges.

Robert Rizzo, 60, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles to one count each of conspiracy and filing a false federal income tax return as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors.

Rizzo became the face of local government corruption in 2010 when it was revealed that he was earning a salary of nearly $800,000 per year as city manager of Bell, a small, mostly blue-collar municipality near Los Angeles.

He was also collecting a pension that would have paid him millions of dollars over his lifetime. Law enforcement officials, who portrayed Rizzo as the "unofficial czar" of a city government gone bad, said he had arranged for nearly $1.9 million in unauthorized loans to himself and others.

Rizzo faces a sentence of between 10 and 12 years in state prison when he is sentenced on 69 criminal counts to which he pleaded no contest in a separate state case. Under California law a no contest plea is the legal equivalent to pleading guilty.

He faces a maximum of eight years in prison in the federal tax case and will likely be allowed to serve both sentences concurrently.

Last March, five former elected officials from Bell, including ex-Mayor Oscar Hernandez, were convicted of misappropriating public funds. They are facing a retrial on additional counts that deadlocked jurors in the case.

Angela Spaccia, Bell's former assistant city administrator, was convicted in December on 11 felony counts related to the scandal.

The furor in Bell fueled a statewide debate in California over pay and pensions for public officials and upheaval in the city of about 35,000 residents, who voted in 2011 to replace the entire city council.

The scandal first came to light when the Los Angeles Times revealed in a series of articles that Bell officials had secretly enriched themselves. The newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for its coverage of the story.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Dan Grebler)