BELL (AP) — Robert Rizzo was the mastermind of a scam, prosecutors say, that bilked one of Southern California’s poorest cities out of more than $5.5 million, money with which he lined his pockets and those of a handful of cronies.
Rizzo, Bell’s former city manager, gained national notoriety last summer after it was revealed he was paid $1.5 million a year in salary and benefits to run a city of 40,000 people.
He is charged with more than 50 counts of misappropriating public funds, conflict of interest and falsifying public records.
But on Tuesday, the first day of a preliminary hearing to determine if there is enough evidence for Rizzo and three other past and present Bell officials to stand trial, his attorney indicated it was Rizzo, not the people of Bell, who was victimized.
“Everybody has agreed that it’s not a crime to be paid too much,” attorney James Spertus said during his opening statement.
Had it not been for the Los Angeles Times’ report on Rizzo’s salary, Spertus said, and the international media attention and public outrage that created, Rizzo would not be facing charges.
His salary was legally approved by the Bell city council, Spertus said, adding that Rizzo also did nothing wrong in loaning nearly $2 million in public money to dozens of people, including himself, 10 Bell police officers, council members and others.
“Most of them were fully collateralized, repaid and served a public purpose,” Spertus said of the loans.
As Rizzo, wearing a dark blue suit and light blue shirt, sat behind his lawyer, a longtime resident and one of Rizzo’s former employees testified during the hearing.
His former staffer said Rizzo approved his own contracts that granted himself huge raises every year and that he provided false figures when the Bell resident demanded to know what he and others were making.
Along with Rizzo, the actions of three other city officials are under scrutiny: former assistant city manager Angela Spaccia; Mayor Oscar Hernandez; and former Councilman Luis Artiga. They are charged with misappropriating hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funds by accepting loans Rizzo made them.
Hernandez, Artiga and four other current and former council members have already been ordered to stand trial following a similar hearing earlier this month on charges of illegally inflating their salaries with payments for work never done.
Each of the six was paid about $100,000 a year for service on a city council that meets about once a month in the modest, working-class Los Angeles suburb where one in six people live in poverty.
Bell resident Roger Ramirez said he got wind of the huge salaries in 2008 and confronted Rizzo, who was asked whether he made $400,000 a year as Ramirez had heard.
“He immediately said, `No, Mr. Ramirez, if I would be making $400,000 a year, I wouldn’t be working here,”‘ Ramirez testified.
Ramirez subsequently filed a public records request and received documentation showing Rizzo was paid $15,478 a month and the council members $673 a month.
Bell’s administrative services director, Lourdes Garcia, also testified, recalling that after Ramirez made his request, Rizzo told her to provide those numbers.
She said he told her that most of his and the others’ salaries were not paid for work as city manager or city council members, but for service on numerous boards and commissions. Rizzo added that Ramirez hadn’t asked for those salaries.
She also testified that the numerous contracts Rizzo signed giving himself huge raises over the years were never approved by the city attorney.
The Times eventually obtained Bell’s true salaries last year through its own public records request. Garcia said shortly before that, City Clerk Rebecca Valdez told her Rizzo had ordered that she have Hernandez sign his contracts even though Hernandez wasn’t mayor at the time they were written.
“She was crying,” Garcia said of Valdez. “She was very nervous.”
Valdez testified at the earlier hearing that she provided Ramirez with false information on Rizzo’s orders. She was expected to testify at this hearing as well.
As Garcia and Ramirez testified, Rizzo sat quietly, occasionally leaning over to whisper to Spaccia or Spertus. Afterward, he put on a pair of dark glasses and tried to leave court anonymously.
Sitting behind him were about a dozen Bell residents who came to watch the hearing. One of them, Donna Gannon, whose family has lived in Bell since 1941, said they “want to see Rizzo go down.”
(© Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)