Weeks before his trial, Robert Rizzo was handed a setback Wednesday when a judge rejected his request to move the corruption case out of Los Angeles County and joked that the once highly paid municipal official should thank disgraced San Diego Mayor Bob Filner for “kind of taking the edge” off him.
Rizzo’s attorney had asked that the case, filed after The Times exposed the high salaries and questionable financial dealings in Bell, be moved out of the newspaper’s circulation area, suggesting Santa Clara County.
But Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy rejected the request, although she said she would reconsider a motion for a change of venue if the court has trouble finding unbiased jurors.
Neither the judge nor the attorneys could recall a criminal case being moved out of the county since 1991, when the Rodney G. King beating trial was sent to Ventura County.
Rizzo, who became the face of the salary scandal in the tiny southeast Los Angeles County city he once ran, is accused of looting the town’s treasury by paying extraordinary salaries, lending city money and padding his own paycheck and retirement fund.
He is accused on 69 counts of falsifying public records, perjury, conspiracy, misappropriating public funds and conflict of interest and faces the prospect of a lengthy prison term.
When he left his job under fire, he was set to receive $1.5 million in total compensation for running one of the county’s poorest cities.
James Spertus, Rizzo’s attorney, told the court Wednesday that it would be unfair to hold the trial in Los Angeles because the public perception was that Rizzo is “a scoundrel and should spend rest of life in jail.”
Spertus said more than 400 articles have mentioned Rizzo and that artists had placed unflattering posters of his client around Los Angeles. He said more articles have been written about Rizzo than about the ongoing Michael Jackson wrongful death lawsuit, taking place several blocks away.
“I’m not so sure about that,” Kennedy said.
Rizzo did not appear in court because “his knee exploded and he had emergency surgery,” his attorney said.
The hearing also provided some details as to how Rizzo is paying — or not paying — for his defense.
The judge told Spertus that he would have had a stronger case for a change of venue if he had conducted a poll that showed how biased people were against his client. Spertus told the judge it would have cost $50,000.
“We don’t have the money.... This entire defense is being financed, unfortunately, by me,” he said.
At one time, Rizzo owned a $1-million home in Huntington Beach, a 10-acre ranch in Washington and a stable of racehorses.
Jury selection is scheduled to begin Oct. 7. Plans have been made to pass out questionnaires to 350 potential jurors.
Kennedy also turned down a motion to hold a separate trial for Angela Spaccia, the former assistant city manager who is accused on 13 counts of corruption.
Her attorney, Harland Braun, said Spaccia’s defense would blame Rizzo for the wrongdoing in Bell.
“It’s going to be a bloodbath,” he said.
Braun said he supported the change of venue but didn’t join the motion because it would be a financial burden for Spaccia if the trial was moved.
At one point during Wednesday’s hearing, as Braun argued that Spaccia’s credit card receipts showed she was in Southern California and not at Rizzo’s horse ranch as prosecutors had once claimed, the judge quickly weighed in.
“She had a lot of money to spend,” Kennedy said, a reference to the $376,000 annual salary she was receiving in Bell.
Rizzo’s trial follows the prosecution of six former Bell council members who were charged with being paid for sitting on city boards that seldom — if ever — met, pushing their annual salaries to as high as $100,000. Five were convicted on some charges and acquitted on others. One former council member, a pastor, was acquitted on all charges.
The jury also failed to reach a verdict on some charges and the council members will be retried on those counts next year.