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Robert Rizzo is serving time behind cars

The former Bell city administrator, who is accused of misappropriating public funds, is working as a parking lot attendant at the International Surfing Museum in Huntington Beach.

January 13, 2011|Steve Lopez
  • Former Bell City Administrator Robert Rizzo has a new gig, as a parking lot attendant in Huntington Beach.
Former Bell City Administrator Robert Rizzo has a new gig, as a parking lot… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

A tipster dropped me a line the other day to say she'd spotted an infamous former public official in Huntington Beach, working as a parking lot guard at the International Surfing Museum.

So I drove down Wednesday to have a look, and guess what: Humpty Dumpty has had a great fall.

Robert "Ratso" Rizzo seems to have a new job.

You know the name, no doubt. Rizzo is the disgraced former city administrator of Bell who was charged along with other city officials of misappropriating millions of dollars in public funds from that financially crippled community while finagling a staggering salary for himself of nearly $800,000 a year. Rizzo, referred to by a prosecutor as "an unaccountable czar," stood in a corner of the parking lot at 5th and Olive, near a mural of surfers.

"You look famous," I said to him.

He shrugged.

That's when I introduced myself. Rizzo looked at me with surprise, then said he'd seen what I'd written about him, which may explain why he seemed a bit cool.

Call it a wild guess, but I'm betting Rizzo wasn't working as a parking attendant out of the goodness of his heart. It made me wonder if it might have something to do with his arrest last March in Huntington Beach after crashing through a mailbox with a tank full of booze.

I checked with Orange County authorities, who said that Rizzo still has to complete 80 hours of community service by April as part of a sentence that includes three years' probation.

So I asked Rizzo if the parking gig was for the DUI rap.

"I volunteer," he said.

Because he has to?

"I enjoy volunteering," said Rizzo, who previously enjoyed buying horses and visiting his nearly $1-million horse ranch in Washington state.

Gary Sahagen, the volunteer manager of the nonprofit museum, said Rizzo began working there last week, and that others have done service there to satisfy court requirements. But he wasn't sure if that was the case with Rizzo.

Well, I guess it's possible that Rizzo, anticipating a tough time in court somewhere down the line, is trying to establish that he's really just a misunderstood guy who loves public service so much, he'll do it for free.

Then again, maybe he's a surfer.

"Do you surf?" I asked, and I think this is where the relationship went south.

Rizzo gave me a long hard stare. Perhaps it was his way of suggesting it was just as likely that Jabba the Hutt was a surfer. I tried asking more questions, telling Rizzo this was his chance to come clean, but he wasn't in the mood to chat, saying his attorney had told him not to.

He then grabbed a folding chair, put on a blue security guard jacket and picked up a clipboard. His cap was pulled down over his ears as if he were trying to disappear into it.

Rizzo's job, Sahagen told me, was to make sure nobody parked for free in the small lot and then went shopping instead of going into the museum.

To be honest, I'm not sure I'd trust Rizzo with that kind of responsibility. Sahagen told me the museum is struggling financially, so I hope they have the good sense to keep Rizzo away from the books, or he'll be drawing a $100,000 pension for life after two weeks' work.

Rizzo appeared to be under the radar, with passersby failing to recognize him. Down the street at Starbucks, Bruce Aronson and Frank Reynolds were shocked to hear that Rizzo was in the neighborhood working as a parking lot guard.

"That's almost poetic justice," said Aronson, who teaches computer literacy. "I imagine they're not paying him $800,000 plus bonuses."

Michael Herbert, a jet mechanic, was on his way to Starbucks when I shared with him the identity of the parking lot guard. He said he had read all about what happened in Bell, and he wanted to ask Rizzo, "How could you do that?"

Nothing was stopping him, I told Herbert, 34. So he walked over to the parking lot and stood over Rizzo.

"How could you swindle your city like that?" Herbert asked.

Rizzo sat still as a slug.

"What if you were on the other side of that?" Herbert went on, letting him have it good. "Do you know how many lives you hurt?"

Still no response.

"Yeah, you're not answering now," Herbert said. "But you'll be thinking about these things."

I watched Rizzo help direct someone out of a tight squeeze in the parking lot and complimented him on his newfound skills, trying to loosen him up. But when I asked again if he wanted to say anything in his defense, or, better yet, if he wanted to apologize for what happened in Bell, he declined.

If you go to the surfing museum, folks, and see a glib gnome in the parking lot, please don't make the mistake of tipping him.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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