Former Toronto court clerk pleads guilty for role in traffic ticket-fixing scheme

·2 min read
The provincial charges in each case fell under the Highway Traffic Act. More than 100 convictions were altered to withdrawals or acquittals.   (Annie Poulin/CBC - image credit)
The provincial charges in each case fell under the Highway Traffic Act. More than 100 convictions were altered to withdrawals or acquittals. (Annie Poulin/CBC - image credit)

A former Toronto court clerk pleaded guilty Wednesday for his role in a so-called traffic ticket-fixing scheme that defrauded the city of thousands of dollars in fines.

At a hearing before a judge alone in provincial court, Francesco Rizzello pleaded guilty to one count of fraud over $5,000, stemming from his altering of more than 100 records while working at the Eglinton Avenue West courthouse in the first half of 2018.

According to an agreed statement of facts, Rizzello took at least $7,000 in cash payments from a paralegal to change convictions to acquittals or dismissals, in turn allowing the paralegal to tell their clients that their cases had been won.

Court heard the paralegal wouldn't tell their client about a court date, meaning no one would show up from the defence to fight the ticket before a justice of the peace. The justice would then most likely convict the client "in absentia," a typical outcome when an accused fails to attend a court date.

With advance notice, Rizzello would then alter the record to show the charge was withdrawn or dismissed, or that the accused was acquitted. He would receive $50 each time he did this, the statement of facts said.

The charges were all related to Highway Traffic Act offences, and included things like careless driving, distracted driving and speeding. The scheme cost the City of Toronto roughly $15,000 in fines and thousands in other expenses related to its internal investigation, court heard, which began in April 2018 after an anonymous tip.

Crown seeks 2-year jail sentence

Rizzello was fired by the city in November 2018. The Crown is seeking a two-year jail term, while his defence has asked for a two-year conditional sentence that would be served in the community.

According to the statement of facts, Rizzello struggled with a gambling addiction and substance abuse disorder. He took time off work in 2016 and 2017 to attend a rehabilitation program, which left him in considerable debt.

A sentencing hearing is scheduled for Sept. 7, 2022.

All of the people who had their convictions fraudulently changed have since been notified, court heard. New court dates were or will be scheduled for those who choose to challenge the tickets.

The paralegal named in the statement of facts read in court Wednesday is Benito Zappia. Zappia owned a firm called "We Win or It's Free" and charged clients a premium retainer fee with the promise they would get off the hook.

A total of four paralegals, including Zappia, were initially charged in May 2019 for their alleged roles in the scheme. The charges against all but Zappia were eventually withdrawn.

Zappia is currently scheduled to go to trial in January 2023.

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