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Rizzo trial to take new path

Bell scandal figure's case will offer its own kind of courtroom drama.

March 22, 2013|By Jeff Gottlieb, Los Angeles Times
  • The trial of Robert Rizzo, former city administrator of Bell, will have little in common with that of the former council members, legal experts say.
The trial of Robert Rizzo, former city administrator of Bell, will have… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

His specter loomed over the Bell corruption trial, even though he wasn't a defendant.

The six former Bell council members tried for misappropriating public funds blamed Robert Rizzo, calling him the mastermind of the outsized salaries and alleged graft that made national headlines.

During three agonizing weeks of deliberations, the jury struggled to determine whether the council members' salaries — which approached $100,000 a year — violated state law. The jury found five council members guilty of some charges and not guilty on some others, and they acquitted one councilman outright.

Soon it will be Rizzo's day in court.

Sometime in the coming months, Rizzo, who for 17 years served as Bell's chief administrative officer, will stand trial on 69 felony counts that are in some ways simpler to understand and more clear-cut than the charges that council members faced.

Rizzo is accused of falsifying public records, perjury, conspiracy, misappropriating public funds and conflict of interest. He has pleaded not guilty.

Legal experts said the jury deciding Rizzo's fate will deliberate over more tangible allegations — not the obscure meeting laws and rules covering government boards that the first jury struggled over.

"The difference between the Bell Six's convictions and the Rizzo case are so numerous [that] in some ways this recent trial doesn't inform us much about his trial," said Joseph Akronitianakis, a former federal prosecutor who handled the recent corruption prosecutions in neighboring Cudahy. "When it comes to Rizzo's defense, it is not going to be 'I didn't do those things.'"

Another attorney connected to the corruption cases added, "The only thing they have in common is the word Bell."

Rizzo will go on trial with Angela Spaccia, his former assistant who faces 13 felony counts. She is employing a strategy similar to the council members': Blame Rizzo.

Harland Braun, who represents Spaccia, called some of the charges against Rizzo "indefensible." He pointed to the fake contracts Rizzo is alleged to have ordered city employees to draw up and incorrect information given out about the salaries of Rizzo and council members.

"There's no explanation for that," Braun said.

Rizzo, whose salary was nearly $800,000 a year, became a national symbol for municipal corruption when he was charged in 2010. He owned a stable of thoroughbreds, among them a gelding named Depenserdel'argent — French for "spend money."

Prosecutors allege that he falsified contracts to hide the size of his salary. When a Bell resident filed a public records request for the salaries of Rizzo and the council members, Rizzo instructed city officials to provide false figures.

Rizzo is also charged with giving unauthorized city-funded loans to himself and numerous others, including Spaccia and other city officials. Among other recipients was the Steelworkers Old Timers Foundation, a senior citizens group run by then-Councilman George Cole, which received $72,000 in 2005.

James Spertus, the former federal prosecutor who represents Rizzo, said at the preliminary hearing that Bell's city charter gave his client extraordinary powers and that everything he did was legal. Spertus did not return a phone call Friday.

No date has been set for the trial of Rizzo and Spaccia, but it is expected to take place later this year before Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy, who presided over the council trial. Spertus has said he would file for a change of venue.

The district attorney's office declined to comment on the Rizzo case.

Testimony at the City Council trial portrayed Rizzo as a heavy-handed leader who tolerated no dissent. Lourdes Garcia, the former director of administrative services, testified that Rizzo regarded council members as easily manipulated and unsophisticated and said they didn't understand city government.

Garcia, who was receiving $422,000 a year in compensation before The Times broke the story about city salaries in 2010, is expected to testify against Rizzo, along with City Clerk Rebecca Valdez. The district attorney has granted both immunity from prosecution.

It's unclear whether the council members will testify. Braun said Spaccia will take the stand. "I'll guarantee it," he said.

Rizzo will have a much harder times than the council members deflecting blame onto others, some outside experts said.

"In general, it looks like Mr. Rizzo is much more involved than the defendants in the first trial — and will have fewer arguments if he goes to trial," said Robert Sheahen, a veteran defense attorney.

In Bell, the trial of the council members generated modest interest. Kennedy on Thursday declared a mistrial on the counts that the jury deadlocked on. Prosecutors have not said whether they will seek retrials on those counts.

But the Rizzo trial is expected to be a much bigger deal.

"He was the mastermind of everything," said resident Bob Mackin, 78.

jeff.gottleib@latimes.com

Times staff writers Richard Winton and Ruben Vives contributed to this report.

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