Spit, shakedowns marked Rizzo’s epic rise and fall
Detroit — Chuck Rizzo grew up poor and picked on, spat on by schoolkids before becoming a multimillionaire trash mogul only to be preyed upon by corrupt politicians, his lawyers argued Monday in a plea for a lesser prison sentence.
Lawyers for Rizzo, 47, of Bloomfield Hills charted his epic rise and fall in a dramatic federal court filing while seeking a shorter prison sentence for his role in a widespread public corruption scandal that started in Macomb County and spread to Detroit.
Rizzo should spend less than six years in prison because he cooperated with the FBI, helped catch corrupt politicians and helped investigators try to find bodies of murder victims in area landfills, according to the filing.
Rizzo, the former CEO of Rizzo Environmental Services, will be sentenced April 23 on bribery and wire fraud charges after being accused of stealing from his own company to bribe politicians. The bribes helped Rizzo build his trash-hauling firm into a regional powerhouse and he spent some of the stolen cash on a $2.5 million mansion.
“Rizzo admits that he violated the law with bribes to public officials and theft,” defense lawyers David Debold and Thomas Green wrote in the court filing. “He acknowledges that his illegal conduct and its consequences are his responsibility to bear.”
Rizzo was a conscientious crook, his lawyers argued. More than 30 communities that contracted with Rizzo Environmental Services saved $28.8 million by hiring the firm instead of competitors.
Rizzo is in jail after violating bond conditions.
Prosecutors are recommending U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland sentence Rizzo to more than six years in prison but defense lawyers want the businessman to serve less than 75 months behind bars.
The filing Monday reads like a novel and offers an intimate view of life as an undercover FBI informant who later became a target of the corruption investigation. Rizzo also describes the challenge of building a trash empire while constantly being harassed by lying politicians who demanded cash bribes so often he blocked their phone calls.
“Rizzo did not initiate a plan, nor did he seek out opportunities, to pay crooked politicians; instead, the corrupt officials at issue here deliberately pursued Rizzo,” his lawyers wrote.
The request for less time in prison is difficult considering Rizzo violated bond conditions and was accused of trying to tamper with an FBI witness, said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor.
“That puts him in a tougher position, having to fight your way out of that,” Henning said. “He’s up there with an 0-2 count.”
Rizzo’s filing pinpoints the roots of the corruption investigation.
In January 2016, FBI agents confronted him about the bribery and wire fraud. He quickly agreed to help the government catch corrupt politicians by going undercover, recording phone calls and meetings for nine months, according to the filing.
Rizzo’s cooperation helped the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office, which has charged 20 people so far and secured 15 convictions.
But while cooperating, Rizzo continued to pocket money from an embezzlement scheme involving an employee, Quintin Ramanauskas. The continued criminal activity turned Rizzo from an FBI informant into a target of the investigation.
The crimes derailed Rizzo’s rise from a poor blue-collar upbringing in Macomb County.
Rizzo was a bullied loner who flunked first grade.
“Students teased, swore at, and spat on Rizzo as he walked to and from school,” his lawyers wrote. “It got so bad that Rizzo’s mother noticed spit stains covering the back of Rizzo’s winter jacket. Rizzo could have his coat washed, and he could change schools, but he could not undo the experience of being bullied or the feeling of isolation that stayed with him throughout his schooling.”
He moved to Grosse Pointe Woods in high school but didn’t fit in with the wealthier kids. At 15, he launched a lawn-mowing business and later acquired a trash-hauling firm in 2001.
Rizzo expanded the trash firm and sales rose from $20 million to $165 million a year.
So did demands from politicians in communities that had contracts with Rizzo’s firms.
Clinton Township Trustee Dean Reynolds, who is awaiting trial, asked Rizzo for help paying taxes in late 2011, according to the court filing.
Rizzo loaned him as much as $4,000, according to the court filing.
The next year, Reynolds said his mother was dying of cancer and that he needed more money, Rizzo’s lawyers allege.
Rizzo gave him as much as $4,000 a month for several months, according to the court filing. In 2013, Reynolds asked for $70,000, Rizzo’s lawyers allege.
“Rizzo refused, and stopped speaking to Reynolds, and blocked Reynolds’s calls,” according to the court filing.
But in 2014, Reynolds asked for more money, according to the court filing. Rizzo claims he loaned Reynolds as much as $10,000.
Reynolds was manipulative and lied about needing more money to pay for a divorce, Rizzo’s lawyers wrote in the filing.
“Sensing Rizzo’s distance and frustration, Reynolds lashed out and threatened to hurt Rizzo’s efforts at a contract extension from Clinton Township for (Rizzo Environmental Services), his lawyers wrote. “In response, Rizzo instructed Ramanauskas to place money in an envelope for Reynolds to pick up.”
Chesterfield Township Supervisor Michael Lovelock also demanded money at a time when Rizzo’s firm hauled trash for the Macomb County community, Rizzo’s lawyers wrote.
In 2009, Lovelock asked for money to help a single mother with two autistic children. Rizzo, who has an autistic son, gave $1,500.
Lovelock later asked for a campaign donation and money to save his home from foreclosure.
“After this supposed loan — never to be repaid — Lovelock became more emboldened and persistent in his harassment of Rizzo for money,” the lawyers wrote. “As a result, Rizzo blocked Lovelock’s calls and had very little contact with him from the beginning of 2013 through late 2014.”
Lovelock became aggressive by 2015.
“Lovelock made veiled threats, such as ways he could hurt Rizzo’s business,” according to the filing. “These threats increased in frequency and severity. Lovelock had a temper, and Rizzo knew he carried a gun.”
At one point, Lovelock claimed he was dying of cancer and needed cash to save his home and provide for his wife, according to court records.
So Rizzo gave him as much as $6,000 in 2015.
Then, Rizzo blocked Lovelock’s calls until the FBI asked for help catching the Chesterfield Township supervisor in the corruption investigation, according to the court filing.
At the FBI’s urging, Rizzo gave the politician less money than what was requested. Rizzo was cooperating under the guidance of FBI Special Agent Robert Beeckman.
“Lovelock’s harassment became so severe that Agent Beeckman told Rizzo he could go ahead and block Lovelock again,” according to the filing.
“Now do you understand how crazy this guy is?” Rizzo told the agent.
Rizzo’s lawyers bragged that the businessman provided so much help to the FBI that “agents described him as one of the best cooperators they ever saw.”
Lovelock pleaded guilty for his role in the corruption scandal and also is awaiting a federal prison sentence.
A third politician, Macomb Township Trustee Clifford Freitas, demanded money as Rizzo’s firm bid on a trash contract, according to the filing.
Rizzo agreed to pay Freitas $7,500 if the firm’s contract was renewed by Macomb Township plus $35,000 if he helped get the company’s payments added to the township’s water bills.
Freitas also struck a plea deal and is awaiting sentencing.
Rizzo claims he started helping the FBI in 2011 and twice helped “with investigations into the possible disposal of murder victims in landfills.”
Details about the murder victims, however, are redacted in the filing.
Also redacted is a section detailing allegations a rival trash company offered a $40,000 bribe to Reynolds.
“The FBI even had Rizzo show photos to Reynolds to identify those at the other company who offered the bribe,” Rizzo’s lawyers wrote.
Rizzo’s life unraveled Oct. 13, 2016.
That’s when a criminal complaint was unsealed against Reynolds in federal court. The complaint helped link Rizzo’s firm to the corruption scandal, which has cost his firm a $50 million trash contract.
After being linked to the scandal, Rizzo drove to meet his wife, Michelle, in hopes of bracing her for the “waves of news stories,” according to the filing.
“He was too late. Michelle had already received text messages from friends about the connection between her husband and public corruption,” his lawyers wrote. “Distraught, she struck Rizzo and demanded to know how he could do this to their family. She told him she wanted a divorce.”