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Robert Rizzo, accused in Bell fraud, gets prison

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The man authorities say masterminded a scheme that fleeced the small Los Angeles suburb of Bell out of millions of dollars was sentenced in federal court Monday to 33 months in prison for income tax evasion.

U.S. District Judge George H. King sentenced Robert Rizzo just two days before the former city manager of Bell is to report to state court to be sentenced on 69 counts of fraud, misappropriation of public funds, falsification of public records and other charges for his role in the corruption case.

He pleaded no contest to those charges in October and faces as long as 12 years in prison.

U.S. attorney spokesman Thom Mrozek said King ordered Rizzo to repay $255,984 in back taxes and to serve his federal sentence consecutively with whatever term he is given in state court.

Rizzo, 60, was given until May 30 to surrender to federal authorities.

He pleaded guilty in January to single counts of conspiracy and filing a false federal income tax return.

Rizzo acknowledged creating a corporation specifically to claim phony financial losses so he could reduce his tax liability on the $1.5 million salary and benefits package he was receiving as Bell's city manager.

He and other top Bell officials were arrested in 2010 after it was discovered they were illegally diverting millions of taxpayer dollars to pay themselves huge salaries. Rizzo's base salary alone was double that of the president of the United States.

An audit by the state controller's office found Bell had illegally raised property taxes, business license fees, had illegally diverted state gas funds and illegally tapped other sources of revenue to fund the salaries.

At one point homeowners in Bell, where the median annual household income is $36,000, were paying higher property taxes than people in Beverly Hills.

Rizzo's chief assistant, Angela Spaccia, was sentenced last week to 11 years and eight 8 months in prison for her role.

Also last week, five former members of the Bell City Council pleaded no contest to misappropriation of public funds. They face terms ranging from probation to four years in prison when they are sentenced in June and July.

Spaccia was making $564,000 a year when she was arrested, and most of Bell's City Council members were getting about $100,000 a year. Several other officials had salaries well above $100,000.

Prosecutors said the scam cost Bell more than $5.5 million dollars and drove a city where more than a quarter of the residents live below the federal poverty line to the brink of bankruptcy.

When residents learned of the scam they angrily denounced the officials, complaining at public meetings that they had turned their hard-working, blue-collar town into the laughingstock of the nation.

Residents quickly organized a recall and subsequently voted the entire City Council out of office.

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