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  •   Principal Fired for Harassment Draws Disability

    By Patricia Davis
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, February 22, 1999; Page A01

    A former Fairfax County principal who was fired for sexually harassing teachers is getting a disability retirement payment of about $38,000 a year from the state -- more than three times as much as a normal pension -- after claiming that his behavior toward women stems from a permanent disorder.

    Virginia officials had rejected Anthony M. Rizzo Jr.'s claim and said that giving him lifetime disability benefits would be rewarding him for the "reprehensible conduct" that cost him his job as principal of Edison High School in 1989. But they lost the case on a technicality last year, when the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the state Retirement System missed a 90-day deadline for making a final decision on his claim.

    Rizzo claimed to have a "psychosexual disorder" that made him unable to supervise women without trying to coerce them into having sex with him. That condition prevented him from working as a principal again, Rizzo's lawyer argued.

    The Supreme Court ruling forced the state to pay Rizzo a pension of $3,164 a month, with future cost-of-living raises, compared with the estimated $873 a month he would have received without the disability claim. The Virginia Retirement System also had to give him more than $200,000 in back payments dating to 1989, when the dispute began.

    "It's just a perverted situation to allow someone to benefit from perverted behavior," said Retirement System Director William H. Leighty, who had ruled that Rizzo's refusal to seek treatment was reason enough to deny his claim.

    Now the Virginia attorney general's office has come up with another strategy to try to block Rizzo from getting some of the retirement money.

    Rizzo, 62, has been charged by Alexandria police with raping a child in the mid-1980s. Police say the alleged victim, now a 24-year-old woman who contacted them recently, was between the ages of 10 and 12 at the time.

    If Rizzo is convicted of the charges, Attorney General Mark L. Earley has directed his office to work with the Alexandria prosecutor "in helping craft a restitution package for the victim that could possibly be tied to his benefits," said Earley's spokesman, David B. Botkins.

    Rizzo is fighting those charges and is scheduled to go on trial March 29. C. Waverly Parker, the lawyer who represented him in the pension dispute, said the attorney general has no business intervening in the criminal case.

    "It seems to me that the state, which lost its pension case only because it failed to defend that case properly, is embarrassed by that fact and is now trying to avoid the inevitable result of its own fault by misusing the criminal process," Parker said. "In other words, I think the state is a sore loser."

    Parker declined a reporter's request to interview Rizzo.

    Rizzo, an administrator and teacher in the Fairfax school system for 25 years, was fired by the School Board on March 9, 1989, after seven teachers and an administrator at Edison complained about his behavior.

    In affidavits, they said Rizzo had harassed them by inviting them to his apartment or his farm, telling vulgar sexual and ethnic jokes, touching them inappropriately or making offensive comments about their appearance. One teacher said Rizzo told her they had been together in Egypt in a former life. She said he called himself "the pharaoh" and told her that she was "under the pharaoh."

    Most of the teachers said they transferred to other schools because of his conduct.

    Fairfax police charged Rizzo with making harassing, anonymous phone calls to one of the teachers, but a judge dismissed the case because of legal problems with the phone company's efforts to trace the calls.

    Rizzo denied all the teachers' allegations and, through his attorney at the time, said they were participating in a "lynching" because they disliked the way he had handled their evaluations under a new merit pay plan.

    Rizzo began his nine-year fight for a disability pension in November 1988, after he was placed on administrative leave.

    One of the most unusual aspects of the case is that Rizzo continued to deny harassing the teachers throughout the dispute over his pension -- even as his lawyer was citing the harassment as evidence of Rizzo's disability. Rizzo's psychiatrist said his denial was part of his psychological disorder, but state officials said Rizzo was trying to have it both ways.

    "You can't argue that you don't have a problem and don't want help, and then say you're permanently disabled," said Leighty, who could not recall ever encountering a similar claim.

    Rizzo first submitted a report from his regular physician, who said Rizzo was depressed about the allegations, under considerable stress and, in his opinion, suffering from a permanent disability.

    The state's Medical Board, which considers medical evidence in disability cases, disagreed, and the Retirement System denied his claim.

    Then Rizzo's lawyer submitted a report from a Charlottesville psychiatrist, Robert S. Brown Jr. Brown said he had met with Rizzo six times and concluded that he was suffering from two disorders -- a personality disorder with "narcissistic" features and a psychosexual disorder.

    If Rizzo were placed in any job where he was supervising women, his psychosexual disorder would compel him to use that position of authority to try to force them into sexual activity, Brown testified at a March 28, 1991, hearing before the Retirement System.

    Brown conceded that Rizzo wasn't seeking psychiatric treatment and hadn't even admitted to any of the behavior for which he had been fired. The doctor explained that his own recommendation for treatment would be Depo-Provera injections, a chemical form of castration, but that he was sure Rizzo would never submit to that.

    "I'd be presenting Mr. Rizzo a treatment for a disorder [he says] he doesn't have, and I'm telling him this is going to change the way his body looks," Brown testified. "Well, here is a man that I say has a rather narcissistic personality, who is concerned with beauty and brilliance and specialness and all this kind [of] stuff. And he's going to say, 'Heck no.' "

    The Retirement System again ruled that Rizzo did not qualify for a disability pension. But he appealed the decision to Circuit Court, saying the Retirement System had made several procedural mistakes. In 1994, the state Court of Appeals sent the case back to the Retirement System for another hearing, concluding that the agency "may have applied an incorrect standard for determining disability."

    That gave Rizzo a third shot at winning the extra benefits, and this time he succeeded.

    On April 25, 1995, he presented the Retirement System with more psychiatric evidence from Brown. The state Medical Board asked Merritt W. Foster Jr., a consulting psychiatrist, to review the case. Foster said Rizzo was "accountable for his actions" and not eligible for retirement based on a psychiatric disability "treated or otherwise."

    On Nov. 6, 1995, for the third time, the Retirement System ruled that Rizzo did not qualify for disability benefits. But Rizzo said he should get the money anyway, under a 1993 state law that requires the agency to forfeit a case if it does not make a decision within 90 days. His lawyer noted that 195 days had elapsed between the April 25 fact-finding conference and the Nov. 6 decision.

    Retirement System officials disagreed, saying the 90-day clock had started on Sept. 27, when they received Foster's report from the Medical Board. A Circuit Court judge agreed with Rizzo, the Virginia Court of Appeals sided with the Retirement System, and the Virginia Supreme Court finally ruled in Rizzo's favor.

    Rizzo has been living on his farm in Orange County, Va., since he was fired 10 years ago. In September 1989, he was working as a foreman for a building supply company, according to court records. Parker, his lawyer, declined to say whether Rizzo is currently employed.

    Julia G. Strand, associate director of the Sexual Behaviors Consultation Unit at Johns Hopkins University, said in an interview last week that although she could not comment on the specifics of Rizzo's case, the American Psychiatric Association does not recognize "psychosexual disorder" as a diagnostic term.

    "There's no reason why somebody with a personality disorder can't work," said Strand, a clinical psychologist. "And there's no reason why somebody who misbehaves can't, with help, correct his behavior."

    On Dec. 11 of last year, Rizzo was arrested on the charges that he raped a child between 1984 and 1986. He also was charged with aggravated sexual battery, taking indecent liberties and attempted forcible sodomy.

    Alexandria Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Molly Frio said the alleged assaults occurred in Rizzo's home and the victim's home. She declined to say how many incidents are alleged or to provide any other details about the case. Frio said the victim only recently was able to gather the strength to come forward.

    If Rizzo is convicted, it is unclear whether the attorney general's office would succeed in having some of his retirement money sent to the victim as part of his sentence.

    Unlike in civil cases, restitution in criminal cases is limited by statute to paying property damages or medical expenses incurred by the victim. If there were medical expenses in this case, the prosecutor could argue that restitution was called for, but the decision would be up to the judge.

    Leighty said he deeply regrets the procedural mistake that led to Rizzo's victory in the pension dispute and thinks about the case often.

    "On behalf of every teacher who has been subjected to similar behavior, we feel we've let them down," Leighty said.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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