Rizzo tried to tamper with witness, feds say
Detroit — Federal prosecutors want to haul trash titan Chuck Rizzo to prison immediately, saying he tried to tamper with a government witness during a chance encounter at a Detroit casino Christmas party.
A federal court filing late Tuesday chronicles an odd series of events that brought together a key figure in the Macomb County corruption scandal and a witness who helped the FBI secure Rizzo’s conviction.
The Dec. 16 encounter at MGM Grand Casino happened while Rizzo was free on bond and awaiting a March 13 sentencing that could send him to prison for 10 years. Rizzo, 47, of Bloomfield Hills pleaded guilty in November, admitting he bribed Macomb County politicians and stole money from his trash-hauling company while building Rizzo Environmental Services into a regional powerhouse.
Rizzo owns another company that was holding a Christmas party at the casino Dec. 16. That’s the same night a key government witness and his wife arrived at the casino to eat dinner and watch a sporting event.
The night ended with Rizzo violating bond conditions by contacting the witness at AXIS Lounge, prosecutors allege.
“Rizzo attempted to intimidate, retaliate against, and tamper with a witness for the government, a witness whose statements are likely to figure in heavily at the defendant’s impending sentencing,” federal prosecutors wrote in a filing Tuesday.
Rizzo’s lawyer could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.
The filing marked a new breakdown between the government and the once-powerful CEO of Rizzo Environmental Services.
The court filing describes a tumultuous legal odyssey for the former trash company executive, who went from star witness for the FBI to a target after he stopped cooperating with investigators, fired his high-powered lawyer and got indicted in May.
Prosecutors want U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland to revoke Rizzo’s bond. The judge has set an 11 a.m. hearing Thursday in Port Huron that could end with Rizzo in prison.
The witness referenced in the government filing is not identified. But prosecutors said “Witness A” arrived at the casino Dec. 16 to watch a sports event and eat dinner at TAP restaurant.
The witness was on a list of people Rizzo was barred from contacting while free on bond, according to the government.
Coincidentally, one of Rizzo’s companies was holding a Christmas party at the casino and the witness ran into an acquaintance who worked for the firm.
The witness and his wife left TAP and headed to AXIS Lounge inside the casino to avoid running into Rizzo or his father, Charles Rizzo, who also has pleaded guilty for his role in the corruption scandal.
That’s when the witness got a text message from Charles Rizzo. “I heard (you’re) here at MGM, I would love to say hi,” the text read. “Let me know where you’re at.”
The witness went to the bathroom and returned to AXIS, expecting to see Charles Rizzo.
Instead, an angry Chuck Rizzo was there, prosecutors said.
“Chuck Rizzo began by berating Witness A, stating that it was Witness A’s fault that Rizzo was going to jail for as long as he was. Rizzo then chastised Witness A for telling federal authorities that their theft scheme from (Rizzo Environmental Services) started in 2014, which put the total of the stolen money over $500,000.”
The filing provides new details about the roots of the Rizzo investigation.
FBI agents approached Rizzo in January 2016 following a lengthy corruption investigation.
Rizzo agreed to cooperate and stop committing crimes, specifically to stop scheming with others, including the witness, to embezzle from the trash company, according to the filing.
By November 2016, Rizzo had stopped cooperating. Meanwhile, the witness told investigators that Rizzo had continued to steal money while cooperating with the government, according to the filing.
“The information provided by Witness A was crucial to the government in discovering Rizzo’s criminal conduct while he purported to be cooperating with the government,” prosecutors wrote.
In early 2016, Rizzo told the witness not to discuss the theft scheme over the telephone, according to the government.
“This was an apparent effort by Rizzo to obstruct justice by seeking to prevent the government from learning about the continuation of the theft scheme over consensually monitored telephone calls while Rizzo’s cooperation with the government was ongoing,” prosecutors wrote. “In addition, the reopened investigation of Rizzo revealed multiple additional theft schemes perpetrated by Rizzo and others prior to Rizzo’s cooperation.”
Rizzo was indicted in May and released on bond after agreeing not to contact certain people, including the witness.
“Can you agree to those conditions?” U.S. Magistrate Judge Anthony Patti asked Rizzo.
“Yes, your honor,” Rizzo said.
“Okay, and you will promise me that you will obey them?” the judge asked.
“Yes, your honor,” Rizzo said.
He broke that promise within months, prosecutors said.
After running into the witness at MGM Grand Casino last month, Rizzo tried to get the witness to lie about cash generated by the embezzlement — a ploy designed to get a more lenient sentence, according to the filing.
The witness refused and talked to FBI agents after the casino encounter.
Rizzo also said the witness needed to meet with the trash titan’s lawyers, presumably to sign an affidavit that could help Rizzo win a lenient sentence, according to the filing.
“Witness A had previously declined repeated offers to meet with Rizzo’s attorneys because he did not feel comfortable doing so,” prosecutors wrote.
FBI agents interviewed the witness Jan. 3 and the government reported Rizzo’s bond violation the same day.
Prosecutors said Rizzo likely violated a federal law making it a felony to try to intimidate or tamper with witnesses, according to the filing.
Prosecutors called the witness key to helping uncover Rizzo’s embezzlement at a time when he claimed to have stopped all criminal activity.
“Rizzo is well aware that the government’s discovery of criminal conduct during his cooperation played a role in significantly increasing the prison time that Rizzo now faces at sentencing,” prosecutors wrote. “... Rizzo obviously blames Witness A for the longer prison sentence that Rizzo now faces.”
Rizzo cannot be trusted to comply with bond conditions, the prosecutors wrote.
“The government is concerned that Rizzo will seek to contact, either directly or indirectly, additional witnesses in a desperate attempt to reduce his sentencing exposure,” prosecutors wrote.
The incident with the witness could lead to a longer prison sentence for Rizzo.
Under terms of his plea deal, prosecutors agreed to seek a sentence of about six years if Rizzo provided significant help to the government.
Now, prosecutors could ask the judge to enhance the prison sentence, arguing Rizzo tried to obstruct justice, said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor.
An obstruction enhancement could bring another 18 months in prison, he said.
“If they can yank his bail, have him thrown in prison now and then seek that enhancement, they would be coming down pretty hard on him,” Henning said. “He was truly rolling the dice and probably should not have gone to the casino that night.”