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Bell residents have mixed reactions to Rizzo's plea

Some express relief that another chapter in the city's saga of corruption is closed. But others express disappointment at the lack of a trial.

October 03, 2013|By Ruben Vives and Paloma Esquivel
  • Former Bell Assistant City Administrator Angela Spaccia, left, and former Bell City Administrator Robert Rizzo appear in court in 2011. Rizzo has pleaded no contest to a host of charges involving his tenure in Bell.
Former Bell Assistant City Administrator Angela Spaccia, left, and former… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

As word spread quickly along the streets of Bell that the former leader of this small, working-class town had tossed in the towel and pleaded out to charges that he had stolen city money, falsified records and a host of other crimes, residents said they felt relief — and disappointment.

"I was hoping for him to go to trial and to put out in the open all the things he had done," said Marcos Oliva, a resident and activist in the southeast Los Angeles County city.

When Bell was thrust into the national spotlight three years ago because of the alleged misdeeds of Robert Rizzo and others, few believed the man once described by a prosecutor as the town's "unelected and unaccountable czar" would ever give in to the charges.

"Everyone was expecting a trial, that he'd fight 'til the bitter end," said Doug Willmore, who now fills the city manager's office Rizzo once occupied.

For some in the town of 40,000 residents, there was a sense of closure, a feeling that a difficult period in the city's history had finally ended. Others were left frustrated. For years, many here eagerly awaited Rizzo's trial in hopes it would finally shed light on exactly what happened under his watch.

Now, some said, that day may never come.

Rizzo, who served for 17 years as Bell's city administrator, was forced to resign in 2010 and was arrested later that year on suspicion of falsifying public records, perjury, conspiracy, misappropriating public funds and conflict of interest. Prosecutors said he has agreed to serve 10 to 12 years in state prison. He may also be required to pay between $1 million and $3.2 million in restitution to the city.

Oliva, like a few others in town, gathered outside City Hall on Thursday to take stock of the news.

Though disappointed that there would be no trial, he said "I'm glad that this is another chapter we can put an end to."

Mayor Violeta Alvarez said a trial would have allowed Bell's residents to understand how corruption had taken root and flourished in the city.

"We will never know exactly what happened, we will never be able to hear the details," she said. "This is a partial justice for the residents of Bell."

Alvarez, who was voted to the mayor's post earlier this year, said Rizzo's attempt to make amends with Bell's citizens by pleading and testifying against Angela Spaccia, his former assistant, was too little, too late.

"He should have done what was right from the beginning," she said. "Now he just wants to blame someone else for what took place in the city."

Councilman Ali Saleh — who was proclaimed mayor after a 2011 recall election that swept out all the old leaders — issued a statement, calling the announcement a "bitter sweet moment for the residents of Bell."

"There are still so many unanswered questions and a lot for the City of Bell to still overcome," he said.

The city continues to be saddled with massive legal fees from several lawsuits. And it is struggling to pay off bond debt incurred under the Rizzo regime.

"We're all tired and we want all of this left in the past. We want to forget the regime of corruption, Rizzo's regime, and focus on positive things," said Jose Vazquez, who owns Savas Tires and Wheels on Gage Avenue. "We have changed. But it's been slow."

Lorenzo Martinez, a local activist who was also drawn to City Hall after hearing the news, said he had hoped Rizzo's sentence would be much longer than the 10 to 12 years prosecutors say he now faces. He said the city continues to struggle financially from decisions made under Rizzo's watch.

"We're hanging by a thread," he said. "We don't know how long we'll be in this hole."

ruben.vives@latimes.com

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

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