LOS ANGELES – Robert Rizzo, accused of massive corruption in a small California city, was apparently still pulling strings when he quietly arranged to plead no contest to 69 charges, only days before he was to go on trial on charges of misappropriation of funds and related crimes.
His co-defendant and former top assistant, Angela Spaccia, was taken by surprise Thursday and was left with the prospect of standing trial alone with Rizzo becoming the key prosecution witness against her.
She was due in court at a pretrial hearing Friday.
His lawyer said Rizzo would blame Spaccia for the brazen financial corruption scandal that drove the modest Los Angeles suburb of Bell to the brink of bankruptcy.
"Mr. Rizzo, up until the time Angela Spaccia started with the city, made reasonable salaries," said attorney James Spertus. "Mr. Rizzo doesn't know how the retirement fund worked, how the salaries are processed." He said she changed the way business was done in Bell.
District Attorney Jackie Lacey agreed not to announce Rizzo's plea until the hearing before Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy was over and Rizzo had left the criminal courts building. His trial was to have begun Monday.
Spaccia's attorney, Harland Braun, said her case would go forward and she was confident of being absolved.
He said he was dismayed with a system that allowed Rizzo to accept the inducement of a lenient sentence to testify against a former co-defendant.
"This is a sick stunt," said Braun. "He has obviously made a deal to drag down Angela in order to get a light sentence."
District Attorney Jackie Lacey said prosecutors had cut no plea deals with Rizzo.
"Although we were prepared to go to trial and felt confident we could convict Mr. Rizzo of all charges, we are pleased he chose to admit his guilt and accept full responsibility for the irreparable harm he caused the people of Bell," Lacey said in a statement.
Kennedy told Rizzo during the unannounced hearing that he would be sentenced to between 10 and 12 years in prison. He could have received a maximum of 70 years on all counts. His lawyer said he could reasonably expect to be released on parole in five to six years.
Rizzo was charged with stealing more than $5 million from the blue-collar city of Bell, where one in four people live below the federal poverty line.
"Mr. Rizzo is trying to send a clear message that he accepts responsibility for wrongdoing," said Spertus. "He made mistakes and he's trying to make amends for that."
Rizzo became symbolic of the widespread city government scandal after it was revealed in 2010 that he was giving himself an annual salary and benefits package of $1.5 million. His $800,000 salary alone was double that of the president of the United States.
When he was arrested, he was living in an expensive home in the upscale oceanfront community of Huntington Beach and owned a thoroughbred horse ranch in Washington state. He posted $2 million bail to get out of jail.
Authorities said he paid most members of the City Council some $100,000 a year, even though the panel meets only about twice a month to handle matters for the city of about 35,000 people.
Rizzo, 59, is scheduled to be sentenced on March 12.
Spertus said his client also plans to plead guilty to federal tax charges and resolve a lawsuit filed by the state attorney general
Spertus made it clear that Rizzo's plea included the agreement to cooperate with authorities still prosecuting other figures in the Bell corruption scandal, including his former top assistant, Spaccia, charged with 13 counts of corruption.
Authorities say Spaccia was paid more than $375,000 a year.
Last March, five former Bell City Council members were convicted of fraud charges after jurors determined they paid themselves salaries for sitting on boards and commissions that did no work and existed only to pay the defendants. The council members had blamed Rizzo for that, saying he assured them they were doing nothing wrong.
A jury deadlocked on some charges against the city officials and they are awaiting a new trial.
Authorities accused Rizzo of diverting gas taxes and other funds to pay the exorbitant salaries and of illegally raising property taxes to one of the highest levels in Los Angeles County even though Bell is one of its poorest cities.
As more allegations surfaced, angry residents complained that their modest city of just 2.5 square miles had been widely embarrassed. A recall campaign ended with every council member being voted out of office. By then, the council had fired Rizzo and Spaccia.
Longtime Bell resident Ali Saleh, a leader of the recall campaign, expressed mixed feelings about Rizzo's plea.
"This is a bittersweet moment for the residents of Bell," said Saleh, now a member of the Bell City Council. "We have really fought hard and have been waiting for over three years for this moment, but the reality is that without a trial we don't get to learn more about how deep the corruption went and who all was involved."
California Assembly Member Cristina Garcia, who was a moving force in the recall group called Basta said, "Closing this chapter validates the residents' efforts in Bell. It reminds us that an informed and involved public can take their government back and that justice can be served."