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Bell's Robert Rizzo admits 'I breached the public's confidence'

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 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, 60, offered only the vaguest of apologies, and no details.

“I breached the public’s confidence,” Rizzo told 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 Rizzo, 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 this week 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.’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, last week 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, less than 400 voters turned Bell into a charter city and cleared the way for salary caps on council members to be lifted. The measure allowed council members to give themselves, Rizzo and other employees dramatic pay raises.

When he was forced to resign in 2010, Rizzo’s total compensation was roughly $1.5 million -- the highest municipal salary in California, and likely 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 race horses.

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 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 ideas.”

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 took the 5th when Taylor tried to depose him.

Rizzo has never laid out his story to authorities. His one 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 briefly.

“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."


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