Ex-California city leader gets 12 years in prison

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Associated Press

Posted on April 16, 2014 at 1:05 PM

Updated Wednesday, Apr 16 at 1:06 PM

LOS ANGELES (AP) — 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.

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.

In Bell's main business district, at its community center and elsewhere, residents and business people were nearly unanimous earlier this week in their opinion that nothing short of a life sentence would be sufficient for what Rizzo had done to them.

"Is he going to get life? He should. He never cared about us, all he cared about was our money," said recent Bell High School graduate Jose Morales, who was riding his skateboard outside the community center on Tuesday because Bell is now so broke it can't reopen its only skate park.

Authorities said the city of 36,000 was looted of more than $5.5 million by a number of officials.

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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