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In closing arguments, prosecution accuses Bell's Robert Rizzo of stealing more than $5 million

A judge will determine whether Rizzo and others, accused of enriching themselves with the city of Bell's treasury, can be tried for misappropriation of public funds.

March 10, 2011|By Corina Knoll, Los Angeles Times
  • Ousted Bell officials Robert Rizzo, Angela Spaccia, Luis Artiga and Oscar Hernandez listen to passionate closing arguments Wednesday by Deputy Dist. Atty. Sean Hassett in the preliminary hearing to determine whether they will stand trial.
Ousted Bell officials Robert Rizzo, Angela Spaccia, Luis Artiga and Oscar… (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles…)

A Los Angeles County prosecutor on Wednesday accused Bell's former city administrator, Robert Rizzo, of stealing more than $5 million from the city treasury and lending city money to buy the loyalty of employees so they wouldn't object to his bloated paychecks.

"Money is power, and Mr. Rizzo used the city's money to gain power for himself," Deputy Dist. Atty. Sean Hassett said during closing arguments in a preliminary hearing to determine if Rizzo and others will stand trial for misappropriation of public funds.

Hassett was responding to motions to dismiss charges against Rizzo and his former assistant, Angela Spaccia, who are accused of writing their own employee contracts without council approval. Spaccia, along with ousted councilmen Luis Artiga and Oscar Hernandez, is also accused of accepting city loans authorized by Rizzo.

Rizzo's strategy, Hassett said, was to give loans to Spaccia; Bell's director of administrative services, Lourdes Garcia; and two ranking police officers.

Rizzo "wanted to make sure nobody was in a position to stop him when he came down to payroll and demanded more and more of the city's money," Hassett said loudly. "He guaranteed they couldn't say no when he showed up and said, 'Pay me.'"

Contending that the last several addendums of Rizzo's contract were illegal, Hassett said the former city administrator essentially stole $5.32 million in salary and benefits from Bell.

James Spertus, who represents Rizzo, took issue with Hassett's courtroom oratory and asked the prosecutor to lower his voice and stop "screaming" in his ear.

Spertus asked Judge Henry J. Hall to focus on the charges and not the prosecutor's "sensationalism."

"The people are, with dramatic flair, trying to deflect the spotlight from the charges that they have to prove," Spertus said. He argued that the city's charter granted his client the power to authorize loans, which were made available to city employees who used vacation and sick days as collateral and were more of a "cash-out program."

"No one was trying to hide this from anybody," Spertus said. "It's not a misappropriation of funds to give an employee their own money."

The defense attorney also pointed out that the loans were paid back with interest and benefited the public by retaining city employees.

"Mr. Rizzo is not concocting some devious scheme to benefit himself," Spertus said. "He's trying to keep a qualified workforce."

Defense attorneys questioned why the district attorney's office chose to ignore other loan recipients, including 11 police officers, and granted immunity to Garcia and Bell City Clerk Rebecca Valdez, both of whom accepted loans.

Spaccia received more than $300,000 in loans and used one to buy a home. One of Artiga's $20,000 loans was put toward adopting a 2-year-old girl from Tijuana. Hernandez bought cash registers and a meat scale for his market with his $20,000 loan.

Hall is expected to rule Thursday.

corina.knoll@latimes.com

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