Residents of a community southeast of downtown Los Angeles have said no sentence would be too long for a former official convicted of masterminding a corruption scandal that nearly bankrupted the city.
But a judge Wednesday sentenced former Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo to the maximum 12 years is prison and ordered him to pay $8.8 million in restitution after his no-contest plea to 69 counts of fraud, conspiracy, misappropriation of public funds and other charges. Rizzo, hired by the small community of Bell in 1992, spoke to the court for about one minute before the sentence was announced and said he "breached" taxpayers' trust.
"For the first 12 years, we ran a very tight ship," said Rizzo. "Beginning in the 13th year, I breached the public's confidence by starting to look at the position more toward myself than toward the community. I am very, very sorry for that. I apologize for that -- if I could go back and make changes, I would."
Outside of the downtown Los Angeles courthouse, Rizzo was asked whether he had anything to add after hearing his sentence.
"Basically, what I said in court -- I apologize, I accept my responsiblities," Rizzo said.
It was revealed in 2010 that Rizzo was giving himself an annual salary and benefits package of $1.5 million as part of a long-running corruption scandal that involved several city council members.
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 lucrative salaries and pensions that Rizzo and other top officials collected.
Several residents, some of whom have attended many court hearings for Rizzo and others charged in the scandal, spoke Wednesday during the sentencing phase.
"He really hurt people," one resident said. "He's now here to pay. We trusted him and others to be our representatives."
Another resident said he was upset because he has never heard Rizzo apologize -- until Wednesday.
Rizzo was ordered earlier this week to serve 33 months in prison in connection with a tax evasion case. He also was ordered to pay nearly $256,000 in restitution to the IRS.
In January, Rizzo pleaded guilty to one count each of conspiracy to defraud the IRS and filing a false federal income tax return. From 2005 to 2010, prosecutors said Rizzo claimed more than $770,000 in non-existent losses.
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His attorney said Rizzo should get about five years in prison in the corruption case because he acknowledged wrongdoing and offered to help authorities prosecute his top assistant, Angela Spaccia, who was sentenced to nearly 12 years in prison.
"By imposing a sentence on Mr. Rizzo that contrasts sharply with the 11.5-year sentence already imposed on Ms. Spaccia, the court can send an appropriate message to the public: acceptance of responsibility and cooperation matter," Spertus said previously.
Five former city council members -- George Cole, Oscar Hernandez, Teresa Jacobo, Victor Bello and George Mirabal -- were convicted at an earlier trial, but faced a re-trial on corruption charges. They accepted an agreement, which caps their prison terms at four years, earlier this month and are scheduled for sentencing this summer.
But it was Rizzo who became the public face of the scandal that betrayed and outraged taxpayers in the city of 36,000.
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"Mr. Rizzo, you did some very, very bad things for a very long time," Judge Kathleen Kennedy said before handing down the sentence.
Prosecutors called the salaries and retirement package figures in the tiny southeast Los Angeles County city "ridiculous sums of money." Spaccia was making a base salary of $370,000, prosecutors said. By 2010, she was earning $564,000 annually with vacation and sick pay. Rizzo was taking in more than $1 million a year, prosecutors said.
"Nobody wanted to upset the apple cart because they were being paid so well -- money that was absolutely ridiculous for the jobs they were doing," said Kennedy.
A Los Angeles Times investigation shed light on corruption in the city of Bell and the district attorney's Bureau of Investigation launched its probe in 2010. Rizzo, Spaccia and the council members were arrested and charged later that year.
Rizzo's sentence in the corruption case will run concurrently with the federal term. He will serve the first 33 months in federal prison then go to state prison.
"Rizzo believed he was above the law. His greed and total disregard for the hard-working people of Bell have lasting consequences," Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said in a statement. "Stealing public funds is a serious crime that destroys the public trust. We are sending a clear message that we are doing our part to restore confidence in government by vigorously prosecuting any public official who misuses his or her authority to steal from their constituents."