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Scandal-plagued former Bell official sues city

By Shaya Tayefe Mohajer
Associated Press / November 1, 2011

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LOS ANGELES—Public outrage -- and changed locks -- forced Robert Rizzo out of a job last year, but the former city manager says he's still owed his $1.5 million salary and benefits.

In a lawsuit against the city of Bell filed Monday, Rizzo claims he's owed his wages -- with interest -- because he hasn't been convicted of a felony and hasn't resigned his post.

According to prosecutors, Rizzo orchestrated a scheme to bilk the Los Angeles suburb out of more than $6 million by paying himself and other Bell city officials' exorbitant salaries. They face charges of fraud and misappropriation of public funds.

Rizzo has pleaded not guilty.

In the lawsuit he filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, Rizzo said he hasn't been paid since a public meeting in July 2010, when the small, blue-collar community of Bell learned of his outsized salary and benefits.

Protesters were outraged by compensation of $100,000 to City Council members that met once a month, but it was Rizzo's $787,637 salary, along with numerous perks that amounted to nearly $1.5 million a year, that made him the poster-child for corruption in government for furious Bell residents.

They came out in droves to let that anger be known at city meetings.

"In response, the City Council locked Rizzo out of his office and stopped paying Rizzo his salary and benefits due to him under his employment agreement," the lawsuit said.

Rizzo notified the city that he hadn't resigned, retired or terminated their agreement in August 2010, but never got a response, according to the lawsuit.

Bell Mayor Ali Saleh said he'd leave it to lawyers to talk about the legal merit of Rizzo's lawsuit.

"Rizzo's lawsuit is just another example of the gross disregard he has had towards all the working families in Bell and is just another distraction from the injustices Bell residents suffered under Rizzo," Saleh said.

Saleh expressed hope the lawsuit would be thrown out and that Rizzo would be found guilty in the criminal charges against him.

"The real atrocity is that tax payers have to respect due process spend precious tax dollars on defending ourselves from the same person who had a complete disregard for due process and misappropriated millions of taxpayer dollars," said Saleh.

Rizzo filed the lawsuit on his own behalf. Numbers for Rizzo's former homes in Huntington Beach, Calif., and Washington state were disconnected. A message left at the number listed for Rizzo on Monday's lawsuit filing was not immediately returned.

Rizzo's lawyer on fraud and other charges, James Spertus, said Monday that Rizzo's claim is righteous -- even if the outraged public may balk at paying Rizzo his salary.

"Thank God judges are not guided by emotion," said Spertus.

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Mohajer can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/apshaya

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