Rizzo fit in nicely in Bell, winning praise from his elected bosses for righting the cash-starved city's fiscal course by restructuring bonds that teetered on default and taking other measures to firm up the bottom line. He seeded youth programs and kept the parks spruced up. And he embarked on an ambitious program of buying properties through city housing and redevelopment authorities, with the stated goal of improving them.
Some of the purchases now raise questions. One in particular, a bond-financed acquisition in 2006 of land near the 710 Freeway, has proved ill-advised because the city can't afford to pay off the $35-million debt, The Times has reported.
According to Bass and Werrlein, Rizzo also became a friend of Bruce Malkenhorst Sr., who made more than $900,000 in 2005 as Vernon's city administrator and has been indicted on charges of misappropriating public funds.
Malkenhorst, who has pleaded not guilty, said in an interview that he had not talked to Rizzo much in the last four years or so. "Who's to judge?" he said when asked about the criticism of Rizzo's pay.
He said that the two mainly saw each other at golf tournaments and that Rizzo had not sought his advice on Bell's finances. "Bobby had his own ideas on what to do," Malkenhorst said.
Bass, a retired Vernon fire chief who had clashed with Malkenhorst over labor policies there, said he did not like it that Rizzo socialized with his fellow city boss. "I was still close to Bob then, and my constant recommendation to him was to stay away from Bruce Malkenhorst," Bass said.
Until his salary became public, Rizzo continued to dominate his city. At ex-Councilman Cole's urging, former and current employees say, Rizzo helped the city stage a successful election — barely 400 of Bell's 40,000 residents voted — to transform the town from a general law municipality into a charter city. The election was scheduled soon after a 2005 state law capped council salaries for general law cities.
Council members have denied that pay had anything to do with the election, but their salaries shot up after the switch to charter status, and Rizzo's employment contracts ballooned. Casso said available city records indicate that Rizzo's salary was divided among several titles he held, such as head of the housing and public finance authorities; no single giant figure appeared under the city manager designation. Spertus said he believed the council and a former city attorney opted to structure the pay that way.
Meanwhile, Rizzo divorced Sheila in 2001 and married Chiang six years later. The 35-year-old Chiang, who did not respond to interview requests, started a marketing company in 2007, with Rizzo serving as secretary, state records show. The couple have a young daughter.
Rizzo's horseracing interests kept pace. Auburn neighbors say he runs his horses in Washington and Berkeley because the stable fees were too steep at closer-to-home Santa Anita and Del Mar.
At Emerald Downs, track officials and trainers said Rizzo has generally bought relatively inexpensive horses. Listed as the owners of most are three California companies he has formed — Rizzo Racing Stable Inc., R.A. Rizzo Inc. and Golden Aggie Ranch Inc., according to Bloodstock Research Information Services and Equibase Co., databases on racing.
It could not be determined how much he has spent on his thoroughbreds, because many sales are private. From 2004 through this month, Equibase figures show, the horses owned by Rizzo's firms have collectively earned about $678,000, less than half his total take in Bell this year.
Folks who know him from the pastures of Auburn and the races at Emerald Downs say he loves his sojourns there and dotes on his horses almost as much as he does on his wife and daughters.
"He's very much a homebody," said Donna Rose, who runs a bed-and-breakfast down the road from the Rizzos in Auburn. "He is a very nice man that puts his family in a position of big importance."
In March of this year, Rizzo's life away from Bell City Hall took a bad turn. He was arrested in Huntington Beach on suspicion of drunk driving. Police say he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.28%, 31/2 times the legal limit. He has pleaded not guilty, and a counselor informed the court that Rizzo has been in treatment for alcohol abuse.
The pending DUI case charted a downward trajectory. Four months later, after his salary made headlines, Rizzo announced his retirement in the face of a public outcry. Investigators soon were seizing records at City Hall. A former Bell police sergeant sued the city around the same time alleging he was forced out for complaining about election fraud and other official misconduct on Rizzo's watch.
In his suit, James Corcoran further claims that a secretary told him she had been sexually assaulted by a drunken Rizzo. Corcoran accuses city officials of trying to cover up the alleged assault, which purportedly occurred 10 years ago. Former city employees say Rizzo denied the allegations. Casso said he could not comment on the suit because he hasn't seen it.
Spertus said Rizzo wants to put the uproar in Bell behind him and reach a severance agreement with the city. He said his client should be cleared by the pending investigations.
"Is he in jeopardy? To me, on the merits, no," Spertus said. "But in the court of public opinion, yes. That's because of the witch hunt that is now unfolding."
Times staff writer Hector Becerra contributed to this report.