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California city official who typified greed pleads no contest

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The former city manager of the California city of Bell, who became an emblem of local government corruption when it was revealed in 2010 that he was earning a salary of nearly $800,000, abruptly pleaded no contest on Thursday to charges ranging from perjury to misappropriating public funds.

Robert Rizzo, 56, entered his pleas less than a week before jury selection was scheduled to begin in his high-profile public corruption trial and without cutting a deal with prosecutors, Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said.

"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 written statement released by her office.

The trial will go forward on Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court for Rizzo's co-defendant, former Bell assistant city manager Angela Spaccia.

Rizzo faces between 10 and 12 years in state prison when he is sentenced next year on all 69 criminal counts against him. Under California law a no contest plea is the legal equivalent to pleading guilty.

In March, five former elected officials from Bell, including ex-Mayor Oscar Hernandez, were convicted of misappropriating public funds. They are facing a retrial on additional counts that deadlocked jurors in the case.

The case began in 2010 as an explosive scandal in Bell, a small, mostly blue-collar municipality near Los Angeles that drew national attention as a symbol of public corruption after it came to light that Rizzo was earning a yearly salary of $787,000, or nearly twice that of President Barack Obama.

Rizzo was also collecting a pension that would have paid him millions of dollars over his lifetime and law enforcement officials, who portrayed him as the "unofficial czar" of a city government gone bad, said he had arranged for nearly $1.9 million in unauthorized loans to himself, Spaccia and others.

The furor fueled a statewide debate in California over pay and pensions for public officials and upheaval in the city of about 35,000 residents, who voted in 2011 to replace the entire city council.

The scandal first came to light when the Los Angeles Times revealed in a series of articles that Bell officials had secretly enriched themselves, and the paper won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for its coverage of the story.

Rizzo's defense attorney, James Spertus, could not immediately be reached for comment.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Andre Grenon)

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