A former “trusted” City of Toronto court clerk pleaded guilty to fraud over $5,000 on Wednesday for his role in a ticket-fixing scheme after admitting to receiving payoffs from paralegals for altering more than 100 provincial offence notices.
Frank Rizzello, 46, worked at the 2700 Eglinton Ave. W. provincial offences courthouse where he “would ensure that the original conviction was erased in favour of an acquittal or dismissal of charges,” Crown attorney Michael Coristine said, reading from an agreed statement of facts.
Rizzello did this by either physically forging court charge documents, known as the information, or by replacing a conviction with an acquittal or dismissal in the computer system that tracks dispositions.
The affected provincial offence charges ranged from careless driving and cellphone infractions to speeding.
“Mr. Rizzello … accepts that, in fraudulently altering those dispositions, he deprived the City of Toronto of at least $15,000 in fines,” the prosecutor said. His banking records showed 19 separate deposits totalling at least $7,000 between March and June 2018. An anonymous tipster blew the whistle on the scam in April 2018, leading to Rizzello’s suspension in June.
He was terminated in November that year when the city turned over its investigative file to Toronto police.
Rizzello eventually co-operated with authorities and told them he received approximately $50 in cash per file from two paralegals. The agreed statement of facts implicates two paralegals who were originally charged with Rizzello in 2019. The Crown withdrew charges laid against one of them, Ben Bennardo, in 2020, while Benito Zappia, whose advertising slogan was “We Win or It’s Free,” is scheduled to go on trial for fraud next January. His paralegal licence was revoked after being found guilty of professional misconduct unrelated to this case.
“Mr. Zappia continues to deny the allegations against him and any wrongdoing,” his lawyer, Robert Karrass, wrote in an email to the Star. Karrass added his client questions the accuracy of the agreed statement of facts, read in court Wednesday.
Contacted by the Star and told of the allegations contained in the agreed statement, Bennardo directed the Star to a lawyer who did not provide a comment.
Bennardo has previously said the allegations against him were unfounded.
According to the Law Society of Ontario website, he is a practising paralegal without restriction. He was suspended for five months in 2021 for professional misconduct unrelated to this ticket-fixing case.
An LSO disciplinary official could be seen observing the Zoom court hearing Wednesday. An LSO spokeswoman declined to say whether any action will be taken.
The City of Toronto spent considerable effort and resources investigating and prosecuting the scam and will have to spend more now that the tickets have been reinstated and many individuals are seeking to have their matters tried legitimately, the prosecutor said. By late August 2018, the city had located all the affected files and reinstated conviction notices to those individuals who had previously been told they were exonerated.
According to the agreed facts, Rizzello agreed to co-operate with the paralegals after incurring significant debt when he took time off work in 2017 to enter rehab for gambling and drug addiction, Coristine said. He also believed he would not get caught due to his long-standing tenure at the City of Toronto, where he had worked since 2004.
The prosecution is seeking a jail sentence of two years less a day. Rizzello’s lawyer, Gerald Yasskin, will ask Superior Court Justice Jane Kelly to permit Rizzello to serve the same length of sentence out of custody.
A sentencing hearing is set for Sept. 7.
Betsy Powell is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and courts for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @powellbetsy