Rizzo to Stand Trial

Robert Rizzo is charged with more than 50 counts of fraud

Bell's former city administrator and his top deputy were ordered Thursday to stand trial on charges of misappropriating millions of dollars from the city's coffers through lofty salaries and loans of taxpayer money.

Robert Rizzo is charged with more than 50 counts of fraud, including 44 counts of misappropriation of public funds, six counts of falsification of records by an official custodian, three counts of conflict of interest and one count of public officer crime. He also is charged in a separate case with two counts of misappropriation of public funds.

His former top assistant, Angela Spaccia, is charged with four counts of misappropriation of public funds.

They will be arraigned March 24.

During closing arguments of the roughly three-week preliminary hearing, Deputy District Attorney Sean Hassett said Wednesday that the pair siphoned about $6.7 million from the city before a public corruption scandal erupted last summer and eight municipal officials were arrested.

Hassett said the pair "self-dealt" themselves millions by writing their own employment contracts and covering it up by creating alternate paperwork to shield themselves.

"They simply took their contracts down to payroll and said, 'Pay me,' and their salaries rose by 50 percent a year," Hassett told Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Henry J. Hall.

Rizzo and Spaccia's attorneys, however, asked Hall to dismiss all charges against the defendants, arguing that prosecutors offered no evidence that the pair did anything that wasn't legal under Bell's city charter.

"If he had some secret plan, it's a crime," Rizzo's defense attorney James Spertus said of his client. "That is not the factual record in this case."

As for Spaccia, attorney Russell Petti said she "had no control over public funds" and "didn't have the power to give herself raises."

As part of Hall's ruling, Mayor Oscar Hernandez and former Councilman Luis Artiga were also ordered to stand trial on various charges, and they will also be arraigned March 24.

Rizzo, the alleged ringleader of the scheme, is charged with using city money to give loans to about 50 city employees and private businesses, falsifying public records to conceal his record-breaking salary and conflict of interest. Hernandez and Artiga are charged with receiving illegal loans.

Hassett told the judge that the city's loan program was the root of corruption in the tiny blue-collar city in southeastern Los Angeles County.

Rizzo used the loans "to buy the loyalty and trust of the people around him. That's what those loans were for," the prosecutor said.

"Money is power," Hassett said, "and Mr. Rizzo used the city's loan program to run the city the way he wanted it to run."

But Spertus argued that "these loans have been repaid with full interest," adding that the money transfers had "a public purpose."

Hall previously ordered six former Bell city officials, including Hernandez and Artiga, to stand trial on similar charges.

In arguing for dismissal of all charges, Spertus told Hall that his client wore "different hats" during his reign as city manager. During those years, Rizzo oversaw the loan program, for example, and signed his own employee contracts.

As for Bell's books, Spertus said they were frequently audited by an outside firm before the arrests, "and the auditors never had any problem with the loan program."

The defense attorney also insisted Rizzo never falsified public records because the document in question "is not a public record."

The third and final preliminary hearing in the case will begin next week.

Former Bell Councilman Victor Bello was released on bail early Wednesday after more than five months in jail.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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