Robert Rizzo, the former city manager at the heart of the corruption scandal in the small town of Bell, California, is not entitled to have the city he defrauded pay his legal bills, a state appeals court ruled Friday.
Rizzo pled no contest last week to 69 felony counts of misappropriating public funds, falsifying records, perjury and other public corruption-related crimes. He will face 10 to 12 years in prison. The plea came on the eve of his trial and that of another Bell official, Angela Spaccia.
Five former city council members in the town of 38,000 east of Los Angeles were found guilty of stealing public money. The case made the city the national symbol for graft.
The appeals court decision is likely to apply to the others as well.
The city has been virtually stripped of its assets and left near bankruptcy after a Los Angeles Times story in 2010 exposed a salary scandal that grew into much broader corruption charges.
Rizzo stole millions of dollars, paying himself an exorbitant salary. Other city officials had the highest public salaries in the country, even though they represented a small blue-collar town without significant assets.
Rizzo had claimed that the city had a contractual obligation to pay his criminal and civil legal defense fees.
In the appeal, the city had challenged the state trial judge’s order denying the city a jury trial on Rizzo’s claim. The appeals court went much farther.
It held “the city does not owe Rizzo such a defense,” and thus eliminates the need for the city to take the case to a jury and spend even more money.
A full accounting of his misdeeds is unnecessary to the resolution of the appeal, according to the court. “It suffices to say that, as the city alleged, ‘this lawsuit arises out of a series of long running dishonest acts by Rizzo and other city administrators running nearly 17 years. During this time, Rizzo embezzled, stole, and misappropriated millions of dollars in city funds by obtaining grossly excessive and completely unwarranted compensation packages.’”
A city may refuse to provide an employee or former employee with defense to civil action if it is determined the employee acted outside the scope of their job or failed to act because of fraud, corruption or malice, according to the court.
Case: City of Bell v. Sup. Court (Rizzo), No. B247362
Photo: LA Times, by Mark Boster