Robert Rizzo in court last year. (Mark Boster, Los Angeles Times)

Robert Rizzo, the central figure in the scandal that made the working-class city of Bell a national symbol for government graft, effectively admitted for the first time Thursday his role in the corruption scheme.

On the eve of his trial, Rizzo made a surprise appearance in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom and pleaded no contest to 69 felony charges of misappropriating public funds, hiding and falsifying records, perjury and other crimes.

Prosecutors said Rizzo would be sentenced to 10 to 12 years in prison. His attorney said Rizzo would also probably be required to pay between $1 million and $3.2 million in restitution to the city.

When he left his job amid an outcry over his salary, his annual compensation was $1.5 million for running one of Los Angeles County’s poorest cities. He owned a ranch near Seattle and race horses, including a gelding named Depenserdel'argent -- French for “spend money.” He gave out millions of dollars in unauthorized loans from the city to himself, other employees and a car dealer.

Rizzo initiated the plea himself and it was not negotiated with prosecutors, a spokeswoman for the L.A. County district attorney said. A no-contest plea has the same effect in criminal court as a guilty plea.

Rizzo’s lawyer, James W. Spertus, said the plea resolves not only the district attorney’s charges but a civil lawsuit filed by the attorney’s general’s office and a federal criminal probe into whether Rizzo conspired to commit tax fraud. He said Rizzo is cooperating with authorities and claims his former assistant city manager, Angela Spaccia, was the architect of the corruption.

“Mr. Rizzo wants to make amends to the citizens of Bell for engaging in wrongdoing,” Spertus said. “This is an effort to accept responsibility. He’s sorry about it.”

In Bell, Rizzo’s new desire to help the city and insistence that he was not the mastermind of the corruption was met with skepticism. Some said they had wanted a public trial that would lay bare for the city’s residents how Rizzo and others enriched themselves at taxpayer expense.

“This is a partial justice for the residents of Bell,” said Mayor Violeta Alvarez, who was elected as part of a recall election amid an uproar following revelations that Rizzo was making nearly $800,000 a year. “We will never know exactly what happened. We will never be able to hear the details.”

Alvarez also questioned the suggestion that Rizzo wanted to make amends to the city that he ran for 17 years.

“He wants to make it right now?” she asked. “He should have made it right when he was hired.”

Councilman Nestor Valencia said the city is still experiencing the painful legacy of Rizzo’s management.

“Rizzo pleaded no contest, saving himself the humiliation, but our taxes are still high,” he said.

Rizzo, 59, served as city manager of the predominantly Latino city in southeast Los Angeles County for 17 years. He operated largely out of the spotlight until 2010, when The Times wrote a series of stories about the salaries that he and the City Council received.

Later that year, prosecutors filed a sweeping corruption case against Rizzo, Spaccia and six current and former council members. Then-Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley described Rizzo as the “unelected and unaccountable czar” of Bell and said he defrauded the city of millions of dollars.

Prosecutors alleged that Rizzo wrote his own employment contract without council approval and falsified documents to hide the size of his salary. When a Bell resident filed a public records request for the salaries of Rizzo and the council members, Rizzo instructed city officials to provide false figures. He was also charged with giving unauthorized city-funded loans to himself and numerous others, including Spaccia.

The state attorney general’s office filed a lawsuit contending that Rizzo and others conspired to drive up their salaries, inflate their future pensions and conceal how much it was costing the city.

In the face of public criticism, Rizzo remained defiant, defending his salary by citing his years as city manager. His attorney described the charges as politically motivated.

Earlier this year, five former City Council members were convicted of misappropriating public funds during a trial in which defense attorneys described Rizzo as the scheme’s mastermind. A sixth former councilman was acquitted.

During the trial, Rizzo was portrayed as a heavy-handed leader who tolerated no dissent. Lourdes Garcia, the city’s former director of administrative services, testified that Rizzo regarded council members as easily manipulated and unsophisticated and said they didn’t understand city government.