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A former city manager of a Los Angeles suburb that has become synonymous with greed and corruption must stand trial on more than 50 counts of fraud, a judge ruled Thursday.
Superior Court Judge Henry J. Hall said there was more than sufficient evidence to show defendant Robert Rizzo illegally wrote his own salary contracts and loaned himself and others millions of dollars from the city of Bell "whenever the spirit moved him."
The evidence also showed that Rizzo, who received an annual salary and compensation package of $1.5 million, blatantly falsified city salary records to hide his actions, the judge said.
Hall suggested prosecutors consider charging Rizzo with even more crimes than the 54 counts of misappropriation of public funds, conspiracy and falsification of public documents that will be considered at his upcoming trial.
Meanwhile, Hall ordered Rizzo to return to court March 24 for arraignment on those charges.
Also ordered to stand trial were Rizzo's former assistant city manager Angela Spaccia along with former Mayor Oscar Hernandez and former Councilman Luis Artiga.
Spaccia was charged with four counts of fraud, Artiga with two and Hernandez with one.
Hall said the four defendants "engaged in a massive, ongoing conspiracy to enrich themselves." All four have pleaded not guilty.
The victims, he said, were the 40,000 residents of Bell, a city where one in six people live in poverty.
Rizzo's salary was so high, Hall said, that he made more in a week than the average Bell resident does in a year.
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's attorney, James Spertus, said he was disappointed but noted the ability of the defense to present its own evidence at a preliminary hearing is limited, and the burden of proof on the prosecution is much lower than at a trial.
"I respect the judicial system and I look forward to the opportunity to be able to present evidence at trial," he said.
In a lengthy review of the evidence before he issued his ruling, Hall said Rizzo's contracts were legally approved by the Bell City Council for many years. But that suddenly ended in 2005, when Rizzo began circumventing the council and simply issuing himself gigantic annual raises, the judge said.
At the same time, Hall said, Rizzo was issuing nearly $2 million in loans from taxpayer funds to dozens of city officials and employees, including himself, the police chief, Artiga, Hernandez, numerous police officers and others.
It put him in a position where no one would challenge what he did, Hall said. What's more, it illegally usurped the authority of the City Council, the judge said.
Spertus said the loans were guaranteed by employees' salaries, were repaid in full, and that many were made either to help people in financial trouble or retain valuable employees. Hall didn't contest that but said that didn't change the fact Rizzo couldn't legally make the loans without the City Council's approval.
"It doesn't matter that they were made for good motives," he said.
Three of the charges Spaccia faces relate to more than $300,000 in loans Rizzo granted her. The charges against Hernandez and Artiga involve loans they accepted -- two for $20,000 apiece for Artiga and one for $20,000 for Hernandez.
Noting Rizzo's high salary, the judge pointed to a recent survey that showed no city manager in California made anywhere near that much money. The city manager of San Jose, where 1.7 million people live, makes $273,000 a year.
When a Bell resident filed a public records request three years ago to learn Rizzo's salary, the judge said evidence showed Rizzo directed subordinates to give him phony figures showing it was much less than it was.
The city clerk, testifying under a grant of immunity, has said she provided those false figures, knowing what she did was wrong.
"It was so obviously fraudulent that the people charged with passing it off were reduced to tears and sought counsel," Hall said of her testimony.
The preliminary hearing was the second of three involving Bell officials.
Last month Hall ordered Hernandez, Artiga and four other former City Council members to stand trial on nearly two dozen separate charges of bilking the city by inflating their own salaries through a scheme that paid them for sitting on numerous boards and commissions that did nothing.
Rizzo was told to return to Hall's courtroom next week for a preliminary hearing on two additional fraud counts filed separately from the others.