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Rizzo's horse had come in

Some who worked with him in Bell and elsewhere over the years came to know him as a calculating risk-taker.

August 22, 2010|By Paul Pringle, Corina Knoll and Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Los Angeles and Auburn, Wash. — The lifestyle that Robert Rizzo enjoyed during his run as Bell city manager included a stable full of thoroughbreds, among them a gelding named Depenserdel'argent — French for "spend money."

And Rizzo had plenty to spend, with an annual compensation package that swelled to $1.5 million in one of Los Angeles County's poorest cities.

Rizzo, who resigned last month after The Times disclosed his base salary of nearly $800,000, has held title to about three dozen horses since his pay began soaring, according to thoroughbred industry databases.

He conducted his racing business through at least three firms he launched and bought a $930,000 ranch in 2004 in Auburn, Wash., southeast of Seattle, a getaway from his similarly valued home in Huntington Beach, state and county records show.

Today, his devotion to the pari-mutuel game helps bring into focus the man people say they came to know — the calculating risk-taker who has become a poster boy for government excesses.

Rizzo himself remains defiant, saying he did nothing wrong. On a recent morning at his ranch, he sought to justify his salary — the subject of civil and criminal investigations — by remarking that although it might look astounding, it wasn't so dramatic, considering his length of service.

"Yeah, the money went bad," he said. "But when you think about it, the 17 years I been there, that's $250,000 a year."

Some former and current Bell officials and business leaders, many of whom had heard only rumors about Rizzo's equine sideline, say he increasingly displayed the manner and habits of a high-rolling horse player, with a weakness for Cadillacs, expensive cigars and alcohol.

"I always thought he was living beyond his means the last two or three years," said Bell Chamber of Commerce President Ricardo Gonzalez. "All of a sudden, this was a person I didn't know."

Bell was the second posting that ended under a cloud for Rizzo. He left his previous job managing Hesperia after City Council members accused him of funneling city improvement funds to salaries, according to a former city official who requested anonymity for fear of alienating ex-colleagues. Local news reports also said he and other officials might have abused their city credit cards.

But that was 18 years ago and Rizzo, who had denied the allegations in Hesperia, began to maintain a lower profile in Bell. Colleagues say he was shy to the point of reclusiveness, hugging the wall at business mixers and avoiding speaking engagements.

Over time, by providing large salaries and other perquisites to his allies, Rizzo gambled that his huge paydays would never come under harsh scrutiny, said people who have worked with him.

With Rizzo at the helm, four of the five current City Council members were paid just under $100,000 a year for part-time duties; Police Chief Randy Adams made $457,000; and Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia pulled down $376,000.

Rizzo's attorney, James Spertus, said faulting his client for the salaries and perks that he and the others received is unfair because the council approved them.

"This wasn't a Bob Rizzo fiefdom," Spertus said.

Like Rizzo, Adams and Spaccia had lucrative benefits packages. In addition, Rizzo signed city documents that authorized loans to Spaccia and dozens of other employees, in amounts that exceeded $100,000 in some cases.

Interim Bell City Atty. Jamie Casso said his office is investigating the legality of the loans. He said he has yet to find any records that verify that the council had approved the loans or the salaries.

Under Rizzo's leadership, in circumstances that are unclear, the city bought property owned by Mayor Oscar Hernandez and a social services organization headed by former Councilman George Cole, who is known as the political "godfather" of Bell, city and county records show.

Bell also paid $4.6 million last year for an auto-parts store owned by another ex-councilman and power broker, Pete Werrlein, who said the city got a good price, based on offers he received from retail developers.

In 2006, Bell spent more than $1 million on a law firm that employed Rizzo's soon-to-be second wife, attorney Eugenia Chiang, during three months of that year, city records show. And he had a horse-owning partnership with Dennis Tarango, a private contractor who serves as Bell's planning director, according to racetrack listings.

Tarango did not return calls from The Times.

Short and rotund, the 56-year-old Rizzo took to quoting tough-guy lines from "The Sopranos," and tolerated no challenges to his expanding authority at City Hall, Bell insiders say.

"He likes to be in control," said former Councilman Victor Bello, who told of quarreling with Rizzo over the Werrlein deal and other matters before stepping down last year.

"You don't talk back to him — that's the way it goes," Bello said.

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