LOS ANGELES -- A former city manager accused of masterminding a scam to bilk the blue-collar Los Angeles suburb of Bell of more than $6.5 million was ordered Thursday to stand trial on more than 50 counts of fraud.
Superior Court Judge Henry J. Hall said the evidence presented during a three-week preliminary hearing showed Robert Rizzo paid himself an unauthorized and exorbitant annual salary and compensation package of nearly $1.5 million a year, and falsified city payroll records to hide his pay and benefits from a suspicious public.
Rizzo's base salary alone was so high, Hall said, that he made more money in a week than the average Bell resident does in a year.
Rizzo's former assistant, Angela Spaccia, now-recalled Mayor Oscar Hernandez and former City Councilman Luis Artiga were also ordered to trial on fraud counts. The four, all free on bail, were told to return to court March 24 for an arraignment.
Hall's ruling came two days after angry Bell residents went to the polls and voted in an entirely new City Council.
Rizzo, dressed in a blue sports coat and grey slacks, quietly walked out of court without comment. Spaccia managed a weak smile but declined to comment.
"She'll get to tell her story later. You've only heard one side of the story so far," said her attorney, Gregory J. Patterson.
Rizzo was charged with 54 total counts, Spaccia with four, Artiga with two and Hernandez with one.
Rizzo is accused of illegally creating his own salary and loan contracts and falsifying public documents when a Bell resident demanded to know how much he was paid.
In all, prosecutors say, he misued $6.7 million of taxpayers' money, including more than $3 million he directed to himself.
The counts against Spaccia involve her salary, which prosecutors say was not approved by the City Council, and three loans totaling more than $300,000 that she was granted.
Hernandez was charged with taking one illegal loan for $20,000, and Artiga with taking two for $20,000 each.
Prosecutors claim Rizzo, 57, and others stole millions from Bell by illegally inflating their salaries. They also said Rizzo doled out nearly $2 million in unauthorized loans of public money to himself and dozens of others, and that he hid his salary and those of others by falsifying public records.
Rizzo was fired last summer, shortly after the Los Angeles Times reported the compensation package he received to run the modest city of 40,000 residents where one in six people live in poverty.
Rizzo, Spaccia, Artiga, Hernandez and four other past and present Bell officials were arrested in September. The others were ordered to stand trial following a similar hearing last month involving separate charges.
Judge Hall concluded that Rizzo and Spaccia set their salary contracts without City Council approval, paying themselves salaries far out of line with what other city officials make.
He noted that San Jose, a city of 1.7 million people, only pays its city manager $273,000 a year.
Hall also concluded that Rizzo used the loans to essentially run Bell, buying off anybody who might complain.
Rizzo's attorney James Spertus had argued the loans to dozens of city employees were legal and were made, in many cases, to retain top employees or help people through difficult times. Hall didn't disagree but said only the City Council, not Rizzo, had the authority to make such loans.
"It doesn't matter that they were made for good motives," the judge said, noting that Rizzo used the program to repeatedly make loans to himself, "whenever the spirit moved him, seemingly."
Spertus said outside court he was disappointed with the outcome of the hearing but added the ability of the defense to present its own evidence at a preliminary hearing is limited, and the burden of proof on the prosecution much lower than a trial.
"I look forward to the opportunity to be able to present evidence at trial," he said.