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Robert Rizzo to face trial on conflict-of-interest charge

The former Bell city administrator allegedly was financially involved in a horse-racing venture with a contractor who did millions of dollars of business for the city. At Rizzo's preliminary hearing, the judge tosses out one charge against him.

March 17, 2011|By Corina Knoll, Los Angeles Times
  • Robert Rizzo, left, with his attorney James Spertus, will be tried on more than 50 felony charges after three consecutive preliminary hearings.
Robert Rizzo, left, with his attorney James Spertus, will be tried on more… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

For weeks, witnesses have characterized Bell's former city administrator Robert Rizzo as the architect of the city's alleged corruption — ordering up falsified payroll information, buying the loyalty of employees so he could pull in an inflated salary without protest, leveraging his authority with council members and dipping into the city treasury with free reign.

Although eight former and current Bell officials were ordered to stand trial for misappropriation of city money, it was Rizzo who took the brunt of the blame throughout three consecutive preliminary hearings. Rizzo will be tried on more than 50 felony charges, far more than the other defendants.

During his days in court, he sat quietly, sometimes peering at the clock or jotting down notes on a pad, but rarely reacted to the testimony. On Wednesday, as the final hearing ended, Rizzo was motionless as a judge ordered him to stand trial on allegations that he steered city business to a partner in a horse-racing enterprise. Afterward, the man who was set to earn $1.5-million in salary and benefits quickly left without comment.

Meanwhile, the city Rizzo once commanded is edging toward insolvency and a newly elected City Council will have to make deep budget cuts to keep it afloat. But even that has been problematic — there's nobody left to certify the results of the March 8 election. Most of the current council members have been ordered to stay away from City Hall.

So emergency legislation was introduced Wednesday in Sacramento by Assemblyman Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) that would empower the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to certify Bell's election results. The resolution is expected to be discussed Thursday.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Henry J. Hall, who had harsh words for the defendants in the two previous hearings, calling their actions a "conspiracy to enrich themselves," handed Rizzo a small victory Wednesday when he tossed out one of the misappropriation charges.

The judge said Rizzo's joint horse-racing venture with Dennis Tarango, whose firm provided building and safety, engineering and planning services from 1995 to October 2010, was not done with the intention of stealing city funds.

Still, the judge said a "cozy relationship" was documented in city paperwork from 2005 to 2009 — when the two co-owned Golden Aggie Ranch Inc. — that included requests by Tarango for pay raises and Rizzo-approved environmental reports that Tarango's firm was hired to conduct.

Of the $10.4 million paid to Tarango's firm since, nearly $3 million was paid out while he and Rizzo were horse-racing partners.

"I don't think there's any question that there was a conflict of interest," the judge said.

Hall pointed out that Rizzo did not declare the business on his economic interest forms and suggested that the district attorney's office file additional perjury charges against the former city administrator as well as charges alleging Rizzo violated the state's Political Reform Act.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Max Huntsman said perjury charges were likely to be added, but was not concerned about the other allegations.

"When somebody's done what Mr. Rizzo's done, we don't talk about misdemeanors," Huntsman said.

Rizzo's attorney, James Spertus, said the dismissal was significant because the bar is much lower at a preliminary hearing, where prosecutors only need to produce enough evidence to convince a judge to order a trial.

"There is a complete failure of proof by the people that the court recognized," Spertus said.

Rizzo is scheduled to be arraigned March 30.

Times staff writer Ruben Vives contributed to this report.

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