LOS ANGELES — A former city official who became a symbol of municipal greed was sentenced Wednesday to 12 years in prison — less than half the time it will take the nearly bankrupt Los Angeles suburb of Bell to dig itself out of the estimated $150 million in debt he left behind.
A judge also ordered former Bell city manager Robert Rizzo to make $8.8 million in restitution, but prosecutors say that only covers the money he illegally took for himself.
In all, Rizzo cost the modest city more than $150 million in legal fees and illegally collected taxes that must be repaid, said prosecutors and Bell officials.
“That resulted in borrowing that will not be paid back until 2040,” Anthony Taylor, an attorney representing the city of Bell, told Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy.
Rizzo was arrested in 2010 after it was revealed that he was paying himself an annual salary and benefits package of $1.5 million to run a city where a quarter of the population lives below the federal poverty line. His $800,000 in wages alone was double that of the president of the United States.
His top assistant had a salary and benefits package of $564,000 and most Bell City Council members were getting about $100,000 a year. Several other top officials were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Former assistant city manager Angela Spaccia was sentenced last week to nearly 12 years in prison and five former council members face as much as four years when they are sentenced later this year.
Kennedy, however, said the entire scam could be traced to Rizzo.
“Rizzo was controlling everything,” the judge said, noting he doled out millions of dollars in illegal loans to pretty much anybody who asked and raised salaries to levels the judge called “absolutely ridiculous.”
“Nobody wanted to upset the apple cart because they were being paid so well,” she added.
When somebody did complain, Kennedy said, Rizzo got rid of them, and when some members of the public began to catch on, he falsified public records to hide the fraud.
Rizzo, who was Bell’s city manager for 18 years, told the judge he ran “a very good, tight ship” for the first 12 years but then went astray when he began to put himself, not city residents, first.
“I’m very, very sorry for that. I apologize for that. If I could go back and make changes, I would,” he said.
By the time he was arrested, Rizzo had amassed a fortune. He owned a horse ranch in Washington state, several thoroughbred racehorses and an expensive home in Huntington Beach.
Kennedy said she appreciated the apology.
“But it doesn’t change the fact that, Mr. Rizzo, you did some very, very bad things for a very long time,” she said.
On Monday, Rizzo was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison for income tax evasion. Kennedy said he would be transferred to a state prison after that time was served. She allowed him to remain free until May 30 after being assured his $2 million bail would be forfeited if he doesn’t surrender on that day.
Rizzo’s attorney, James Spertus, had asked Kennedy to impose a five-year sentence. The lawyer said outside court that he wasn’t surprised by the longer term. He expects Rizzo, 60, to be free in about six years after time off is granted for good behavior.
The sentencing of Rizzo brought the case close to an end four years after the Los Angeles Times first reported the true salaries of Rizzo and others. It was later learned that City Hall had illegally raised property taxes, business license fees, sewage fees and trash collection fees; illegally diverted gas taxes and other state and federal funds; and issued $50 million in voter-approved bonds for a park that was never built. Much of the money was used to cover the huge salaries of city officials.
Rizzo, who hasn’t spoken publicly since the scandal began, talked briefly with two reporters outside the courthouse.
“I should have realized that the salaries were way out of whack and taken steps to bring them back into line, but it just got away from me and there wasn’t much I could do after a period of time,” he said after pausing to gather his thoughts.
Several others in city government were well aware of what was going on, he said before adding, “I don’t want to rat anybody out.”
After a passer-by shouted at him that justice had finally been served, Rizzo smiled, shook hands and said, “I’ve got to go.”