Ex-California city leader gets 12 years in prison

The former city manager of Bell was sentenced Wednesday to 12 years in prison and ordered to make restitution of $8.8 million in a corruption scheme that nearly bankrupted the small, blue-collar city.

Robert Rizzo apologized during sentencing in Los Angeles County Superior Court, telling Judge Kathleen Kennedy he breached the public's confidence.

“It is a good thing to hear that he is sorry, and I'll take him at his word that he is sorry,” Kennedy said before addressing Rizzo directly. “But it doesn't change the fact that, Mr. Rizzo, you did some very, very bad things for a very long time.”

The judge pointedly dismissed suggestions that she might sentence him to as few as five years, and she referred to the famous quote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

“That is the theme of what happened in Bell,” Kennedy said. “There were no checks and balances to control Mr. Rizzo and those that were in power in the city.”

She said Rizzo and the other officials “gradually just chiseled away at any controls that anyone else would be able to assert.”

Rizzo previously pleaded no contest to 69 counts including conspiracy, misappropriation of public funds and falsification of public records.

It was revealed in 2010 that Rizzo was giving himself an annual salary and benefits package of $1.5 million in the city where a quarter of the population lives below the federal poverty line. His $800,000 in wages alone was double that of the president of the United States.

Rizzo, who was Bell's city manager for 18 years, told the judge he ran “a very good, tight ship” for the first 12 years but then went astray when he began to put himself, not city residents, first.

“I'm very, very sorry for that. I apologize for that. If I could go back and make changes, I would,” he said.

Deputy District Attorney Sean Hassett told the judge the money that Rizzo actually cost Bell in the form of illegally collected taxes and the settlement of lawsuits amounted to more than $150 million.

“That resulted in borrowing that will not be paid back until 2040,” the prosecutor said.

On Monday, Rizzo was sentenced separately to 33 months in federal prison for income tax evasion after he acknowledged reporting more than $700,000 in phony deductions to reduce tax liability on money authorities say he stole from Bell.

The sentence in the corruption case will run concurrently with the federal term. Rizzo will serve the first 33 months in federal prison then go to state prison. He will be on parole for three years after he serves his time. He was ordered to surrender by May 30.

At the time of his plea in the corruption case, Rizzo had offered to help prosecutors convict his chief assistant, Angela Spaccia, who was later sentenced to nearly 12 years in prison.

Defense attorney James Spertus said Rizzo's acknowledgement of his wrongdoing and offer to help prosecutors warranted a sentence of no more than five years in the corruption case.

“The court can send an appropriate message to the public: acceptance of responsibility and cooperation matter,” Spertus said previously.

Spertus has indicated that Spaccia, as the official who drew up illegal employment contracts that gave Rizzo his salary and benefits and herself $564,000, played perhaps an equal role in the scam. Most of the City Council members were also making about $100,000 a year for meeting about once a month. They face terms ranging from probation to four years in prison when they are sentenced later this year.

“Nobody wanted to upset the apple cart because they were being paid so well,” the judge said during Rizzo's sentencing.

Residents were so angry when the corruption was exposed that they held a recall election and tossed the officials from office.

An audit by the state controller's office found Bell illegally raised property taxes, business license fees, sewage fees and trash collection fees; illegally diverted gas taxes and other state and federal funds; and issued $50 million in voter-approved municipal bonds for a public park that was never built.

A good portion of that money, auditors found, went into the salaries and pensions of the top officials.

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