Four years after he became the face of municipal greed, Robert Rizzo broke his long silence Wednesday in a Los Angeles courtroom and asked a judge for mercy.
The former Bell administrator was pale and baggy-eyed, and his thinning hair had turned gray. For many, there was hope that he would finally reveal how he engineered a brazen scheme to boost the salaries of top officials that left the working-class city tumbling toward bankruptcy.
But in a small, halting, scratchy voice, Rizzo offered only the vaguest of apologies, and no details.
“I breached the public’s confidence,” Rizzo told Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy. “I am very sorry for that.”
Comparing him to The Godfather, Kennedy sentenced him to 12 years in state prison on corruption charges and ordered him to pay nearly $9 million in restitution.
“Mr. Rizzo, you did some very, very bad things for a very long time,” she told the 60-year-old, who had pleaded no contest to 69 corruption-related felony counts rather than go to trial.
The judge will allow him to surrender next month, and serve his time concurrently with a 33-month federal prison term he received earlier for income tax fraud. The former city boss could be a free man in six years with time off for good behavior.
The sentence marked another step in bringing the long-running Bell criminal saga to a close. Rizzo and seven other city leaders were
arrested in 2010 in a case that Steve Cooley, then L.A. County’s top prosecutor, called “corruption on steroids.”
Since then, five council members have been convicted of misappropriating city funds and the town’s second-in-command, Angela Spaccia, was sentenced to 11 years, eight months in prison for her role in the wrongdoing. One council member was acquitted.
Rizzo became Bell’s city manager in the early 1990s, at a time when the city was hard-hit by recession and Rizzo’s talents as a numbers-oriented administrator seemed welcome. He developed a reputation as a micromanager who pinched pennies even as he burnished the city’s image, adding a miniature golf course and pristine playing fields.
In 2005, in a little-noticed election, fewer than 400 voters turned Bell into a charter city and cleared the way for higher salaries for council members. Rizzo and Spaccia’s pay also jumped with salary contracts the council never approved.
When he was forced to resign in 2010, Rizzo’s total compensation was roughly $1.5 million — the highest municipal salary in California, and probably the nation. At the time, Rizzo lived near the ocean in Huntington Beach and owned a ranch outside Seattle, where he kept a stable of racehorses.
Rizzo’s machinations left the city in financial peril. New leaders have slowly steered the city back into the black.
The judge had indicated earlier that she would give Rizzo 10 to 12 years in prison.
On Wednesday, Rizzo’s attorney, James Spertus, asked the judge to consider that the former city boss had prevented a costly and time-consuming trial by pleading no contest last October.
He said Rizzo had been a responsible city manager for years and pinned blame on Spaccia, Rizzo’s former second-in-command.
“She slept with her paycheck and was constantly coming up with more justifications why more money should be spent,” Spertus said. “Those weren’t his
Spertus requested a five-year sentence for Rizzo, and fought to persuade the judge to allow Rizzo to serve his tax fraud and Bell sentences concurrently so he would spend as much of his sentence as possible in a low-security federal facility, rather than a state prison where he would mix with violent felons. He argued that Rizzo had cooperated with prosecutors.
But Anthony Taylor, one of Bell’s attorneys, vehemently denied that Rizzo had been fully cooperative.
“It isn’t true, your honor, and I want the court to be aware of that,” he said. “We have tried from Day One to get Mr. Rizzo to tell us everything that happened in the city of Bell.”
Rizzo, he said, sued the city for his legal fees and invoked 5th Amendment protections against self-incrimination when Taylor tried to depose him.
Rizzo has never laid out his story to authorities. His lone interview with the district attorney’s office was focused solely on Spaccia and he was never asked about the suspected illegal acts by other city officials.
Asked if he wanted to address the court, Rizzo stood and spoke, though only for about a minute.
“I started in Bell in 1992. For the first 12 years, we ran a very good, tight ship, a good city. We didn’t have any issues. Beginning in the 13th year, I breached the public’s confidence,” he said. “I am very, very sorry for that. I apologize for that.
“If I could go back and make changes, I would. I’ve done it a million times in my mind. All I can do today is ask you to please understand that I am sorry. I did breach the public’s confidence and I do apologize.”
Kennedy said the case reminded her of the dictum that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. “And that is the theme of what happened in Bell. There were no checks and balances to control Mr. Rizzo.”
The judge added: “Nobody wanted to upset the apple cart because they were being paid so well.”
After the scandal broke, Bell was faced with about 50 civil lawsuits, including those from former officials seeking legal fees as well as business entities that said they had not been paid. Taylor said no adverse judgments have been found against Bell in any of the cases.
“The city has survived this storm, but we still have to fight every single day as the residents continue to pay this tax burden,” he said.
Taylor said most of Rizzo’s money and assets appeared to have been squandered on real estate investments and about 30 racehorses that would have cost more to care for than what they were worth.
The city has recovered $1.2 million from Rizzo’s supplemental retirement fund, although that will not discount the $8.8 million he has been ordered to pay in restitution.
“It’s a day to rejoice. Justice has finally come after four years,” said Alfred Areyan, 57, who has lived in Bell for four decades and watched much of the criminal proceedings against Bell’s former leaders. Standing before the judge, he described Rizzo as the mastermind of the wide-ranging corruption.
“He was the black widow that created the web,” Areyan said.
Walking to his car after the sentencing, Rizzo — who must surrender May 30 to begin his prison term — looked like a defeated man.
“I should have realized the salaries were way out of whack and taken steps to bring them back in line, but it just got away from me,” Rizzo told The Times. “There’s not much I could do after a period of time.”
About a block from the downtown Los Angeles courthouse, a man recognized Rizzo and shouted, “Taxpayer justice!”
“I can’t go anywhere,” Rizzo murmured.