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.
Spertus, however, pointed the blame on Thursday at Spaccia, saying that Rizzo would testify against her. Spaccia, who was making $376,000 a year, is charged with 13 felony counts, including misappropriation of public funds, conflict of interest and other crimes. Jury selection in her trial is scheduled to begin Monday.
Spertus accused Spaccia of coming up with plans to boost the salaries and benefits of Bell administrators while convincing other officials that the increases were proper. He said she also acted as Rizzo’s bookkeeper and hatched a plan to file fraudulent tax filings for Rizzo and for herself. Spertus said he expects federal prosecutors to file charges against Rizzo and Spaccia in connection with the alleged tax scheme sometime in the next several weeks.
“When they are filed, he will accept responsibility for federal crimes,” Spertus said.
A U.S. attorney’s office spokesman declined to comment.
Spertus said that Rizzo’s plea allows him “to accept responsibility and return to his family after his sentence is completed so he can go on with his life.” He said Rizzo is remorseful about his conduct and wants to repay as much money to the city as he can. He is scheduled to be sentenced March 12.
Spaccia’s attorney, Harland Braun, said he was shocked by Rizzo’s decision to plead. He said he knew nothing about impending federal charges and denied that his client was the mastermind of the Bell corruption scheme.
Thursday’s plea simplifies the case against Spaccia, Braun said.“It means the prosecutor’s case will depend on the credibility of Robert Rizzo,” he said. “How often does the guy who put it together blame his assistant? That’s not even credible.”
Spaccia started in Bell in 2003 as a part-time consultant. The next year she was hired as the assistant to the chief executive officer. Braun said that in 2005 she stopped being in charge of the city’s finances. He said that for the next five years, Spaccia was either away from Bell or working on special projects. He said she was taking care of her grandparents and son, who was injured in a motorcycle accident, had several surgeries and was lent to neighboring Maywood to serve as city manager.
“[Rizzo] sort of sidetracked her,” Braun said.
Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey said in a statement that prosecutors had been confident of convicting Rizzo at trial but were nonetheless satisfied with his plea.
“We are pleased he chose to admit his guilt and accept full responsibility for the irreparable harm he caused the people of Bell,” Lacey said. She noted that his sentence will be the longest for anyone convicted by the district attorney’s office of public corruption since at least 2000.
But Bell Councilman Ali Saleh described Rizzo’s efforts to make amends as “an insult to the community.” He said he hopes that both Rizzo and Spaccia end up serving lengthy prison sentences.
“They took advantage of the community and they harmed us for many years,” he said.
Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.