Tearful Rizzo sentenced to more than 5 years in prison

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Port Huron – Fallen trash mogul Chuck Rizzo will spend 66 months in prison for bribing politicians and stealing money from the garbage-hauling firm he built into a regional powerhouse, a federal judge ordered Monday.

Rizzo, 47, of Bloomfield Hills is one of the central figures in a widespread corruption scandal that ensnared Macomb County politicians, fellow business mogul Gasper Fiore and Detroit police officers.

Rizzo bought politicians on the cheap — $206,000 secured the votes of elected leaders in four communities — while corrupting municipal trash-hauling contracts worth tens of millions of dollars obtained by his Sterling Heights-based company, prosecutors said.

The corruption scandal has led to criminal convictions of politicians across Macomb County, including in Chesterfield Township, New Haven and Macomb Township. In all, 20 people have been charged so far and prosecutors have secured 15 convictions.

The government had requested a sentence of more than six years for Rizzo, but Judge Robert Cleland ordered a somewhat shorter term during a hearing in U.S. District Court.

Cleland went below sentencing guidelines of 75 months, citing Rizzo’s cooperation with federal authorities investigating corruption in the awarding of trash hauling contracts in several Macomb County communities.

Prosecutors said Rizzo dished out $206,000 in bribes in exchange for votes for contracts with Rizzo Environmental Services. He pleaded guilty in November.

Rizzo was brought into the courtroom in orange St. Clair County jail garb, his wrists shackled to a belly chain and his ankles also chained, as several relatives and friends looked on. Before he was sentenced, Rizzo gave a tearful apology to Cleland.

“I have let a lot of people down and disappointed my family, business associates, employees and officials in communities where I paid bribes,” said a red-faced Rizzo, frequently sobbing and having to be comforted by his attorneys before he could go on.

“…I admit to paying politicians in hopes of obtaining favorable treatment.… I know I’m going to prison and ready to accept my punishment. I’m ready to put this chapter of my life behind me and move forward. I will never let this happen again.”

Cleland referred to the “poison apple” of bribery, saying it is both “corrupt and corrupting” and amounts to “thievery” involving public funds and trust.

At the same time, Cleland noted: “I don’t ever think I have ever seen this level of cooperation” from a government informant, saying it should be considered in mitigating Rizzo’s sentence.

U.S. assistant attorney David A. Gardey told Cleland that Rizzo had cooperated with federal investigators but said that at one point, he could have been charged with obstructing justice when he attempted to warn some business associates not to talk to him on his phone, which was presumed to have been wiretapped.

“His world had been turned upside down,” Gardey told Cleland.

In an earlier court hearing, Rizzo and his attorneys had argued his crimes stemmed from corrupt politicians and schoolyard bullies who abused him as a child. But prosecutors have also shown how before the company was sold in 2016, Rizzo embezzled more than $900,000 from a New York private equity firm and investors that included the Boys Scouts of America, the Montana state pension system and the Arizona state employee pension fund.

Rizzo has agreed to $4 million in restitution and forfeiture for his offenses. While Cleland said his sentence should begin immediately, Rizzo’s defense attorneys asked if he would consider sending him to a prison camp in Pensacola, Florida, which they described as an environment that might benefit someone with his work ethic.

The also asked if they might file for Rizzo to be released briefly to take care of some personal affairs, including health matters, for his children and mother. Cleland said he would consider a request that would also be shared with the government.