'We win or it’s free' paralegal bribed court clerk in traffic ticket fixing scheme: testimony alleges
A paralegal firm whose tagline is “we win or it’s free” bribed a Toronto traffic court clerk to change legal records to make it look like they had won, said the clerk in the first time he has testified publicly about the case.
Benito Zappia’s firm used its signature catchphrase on its website, Toronto storefront, and even on a car to entice customers who were issued traffic tickets to entrust their appeals to him.
But authorities allege one reason Zappia could make the promise is that he had an ace up his sleeve.
The court clerk, Francesco Rizzello, took the stand in Toronto Superior Court this week to describe in detail his role in the traffic ticket fixing scheme as part of Zappia’s fraud and obstruction of justice trial. He says the scheme derailed more than 130 cases.
“They were asking me if I could get rid of them, get rid of the tickets for them,” Rizzello recalled of meetings with several paralegals in 2018 near the provincial offences court at 2700 Eglinton Avenue West.
Rizzello has already pleaded guilty to fraud relating to changing records in those cases. He was sentenced to two years less a day at Maplehurst Correctional Complex.
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He arrived in Toronto in handcuffs to describe how an addiction to cocaine and gambling left him more than $45,000 in debt—and desperate to pay.
Under questioning from Crown Attorney Simon King, Rizzello said that over a few months in 2018, he changed about three to four records a day, at $50 a case.
He said he was paid in cash through in-person visits to a paralegal office, with an envelope full of money. He said he made several thousand dollars from the scheme.
“I saw it as an opportunity for me to earn a bit of extra money to pay off debts that I still had lingering over my head as a result of addictions and rehab,” Rizzello said, adding that he is now remorseful for his behaviour.
Francesco Rizzello, a former Toronto court clerk, testifies in court during the trial of a paralegal accused of fraud and obstruction of justice.
An agreed statement of facts in Rizzello’s plea says any client who paid a "premium retainer" would get their trial scheduled at Rizzello's POA court, where they would be convicted in absentia. But Rizzello would adjust the records to make sure no notice went out and no fines were collected.
Zappia would, according to the agreed statement of facts, advise his client the charges had been dismissed.
The City of Toronto was deprived about $15,000 in fines, the documents say.
The city got an anonymous tip about the scheme in 2018 and confronted Rizzello in a marathon four-day interview where he admitted some of his role, but claimed no one else was involved. He was fired.
On the stand this week, he testified he was lying then. In a subsequent interview with Toronto police, he admitted taking money from several paralegals. The paralegals in the case have faced discipline from the Law Society of Ontario, but charges were dropped in every case except Zappia’s.
Robert Karrass, Zappia’s lawyer, said Rizzello’s changing stories could be one reason charges were dropped.
“I don’t think we can trust his testimony,” Karrass told CTV News Toronto outside the courthouse. “He’s given a number of statements over the years, they were very suspect, and my client denies any involvement.”
Karrass said his client has used the slogan "we win or it's free" long before any allegations of being part of a ticket fixing scheme.
The tagline for Benito Zappia's firm is seen being advertised on a car. (Yelp)
The City of Toronto didn’t comment on whether it’s secured the court system against potential further bribery while the trial is on.
Rizzello told the court he is working on his addiction.
“It’s been a constant struggle. Even after rehab, sobriety is not easy. But since the first year I’ve had no challenges whatsoever remaining sober. Maintaining my new way of living, free of gambling, addictions and drinking,” he testified.
Zappia himself didn’t say anything outside court but, just as with the traffic tickets, his defense implies he believes this case is another one he can win.
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