Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Ex-city manager of Bell, California gets 12 years for corruption
Ex-Calif. city manager gets 12 years for corruption
April 16, 2014
An astonishing case of small-city corruption ended Wednesday as the longtime administrator of Bell, Calif., was sentenced to 12 years in state prison for paying elected officials lavish salaries and using the public coffers as a piggy bank for himself and other employees.
"Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy said in sentencing Robert Rizzo and ordering him to pay $8.8 million in restitution. "That is the theme of what happened in Bell. There were no checks and balances to control Mr. Rizzo and those that were in power in the city."
On Monday, a U.S. judge sentenced Rizzo to 33 months in federal prison for income tax evasion. His state and federal terms will run concurrently, and he must surrender to U.S. authorities May 30 to begin his incarceration.
Rizzo managed the working-class city for 18 years before the graft was uncovered in 2010. Though nearly 25% of Bell's 36,000 residents live below the poverty line, Rizzo's pay and benefits totaled $1.5 million a year. Kennedy called his salary and those of council members and other officials "absolutely ridiculous."
"Nobody wanted to upset the apple cart because they were paid so well," she said, describing him as "a godfather of sorts."
The pay packages were part of a larger scandal. A state audit found that Bell had illegally raised property taxes, business-license fees and other sources of revenue to pay the officials' extravagance. By the time it was uncovered, auditors said, the graft had cost the city more than $5.5 million and pushed to the brink of bankruptcy.
At the time of his arrest,, Rizzo was the highest paid city official in California -- and possibly the nation -- and would have been the state's top earning public pensioner had he retired.
Before learning his fate Wednesday, he spoke publicly for the first time since the scandal broke.
"I'm very, very sorry for that. I apologize for that," he said in a soft voice. "If I could go back and make changes, I would. I've done it a million times in my mind."
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times as he walked to his car after his sentencing, Rizzo said he "should have realized the salaries were way out of whack and taken steps to bring them back in line, but it just got away from me."
"There's not much I could do after a period of time," he said.
Under a deal with prosecutors, five former City Council members pleaded no contest to misappropriating city funds, and Kennedy will begin sentencing them in June. Punishments range from probation to four years in prison, and all must make restitution and never again seek public office.
One council member, a preacher, was acquitted.
Last week, Rizzo's deputy, Angela Spaccia, was sentenced to 11 years and eight months in state prison for misappropriating public funds by giving herself enormous raises. When a jury found her guilty in December, her salary was $564,000.
On the witness stand, Spaccia acknowledged that she felt she was earning too much when her salary passed $340,000, but argued that it was not criminal.