Back in 2010, the small city of Bell, CA was front page news nationwide. Over 17 years, the city manager and other municipal officials bilked tax payers out of millions of dollars. Bob speaks with Los Angeles Times reporter Ruben Vives about how the scheme went unnoticed for almost two decades.
BOB: And I’m Bob Garfield. For reasons that will become clear, we’re starting this show with an old story. Back in 2010, the city of Bell, CA, a tiny working-class suburb in southeast Los Angeles, was front page news nationwide.
News Anchor: “a state audit released today claims that city officials mismanaged more than 50 million dollars in bond money, levied illegal taxes, and paid exorbitant salaries to its leaders.”
News Anchor : The DA said they had 70 minutes of meeting over the entire year to bring down a salary of about $100,000 each.
News Anchor: And the California town with the highest paid public official in the country and a quarter of its population living below the poverty line-
News Anchor: That is why they call it stealing.
BOB: The details were jaw dropping. Over 17 years, City manager Robert Rizzo’s salary grew from $72,000 to more than a million dollars with benefits. Part-time council members and lower-ranking municipal officials drew compensation in the mid 6 figures, squeezed from a largely struggling population of about 36 thousand.
Rubin Vives: You know, a homeowner in bell for instance was paying more in property taxes than a homeowner in Beverly Hills.
BOB: Los Angeles Times reporter Ruben Vives was part of the team that won a Pulitzer Prize for unearthing the scandal, but if the paper actually had been on the scene, instead of neglecting Bell and other municipalities, it’s likely the crimes would never have happened, because much of the scheme was perpetrated in public meetings...
VIVES: But since no one was around, you know, things got as bad as they did. Even for young reporters who are just graduating out of college, this is a thing you do: you go to a council meeting, you sit there, you try not to fall asleep, and you pay attention to what's being approved, what's being said by the residents. You know, someone would have got wind of this earlier had there been a reporter there. This is just a prime example of when you turn away, and you let something like this just kind of grow and grow, and it becomes sort of a cesspool of corruption.
BOB: In places like Bell, the city government reporter has left the building. As resources dwindle for news organizations, among the first casualties for cost cutting are the beats that were once the core of journalism's mission: holding the powerful accountable.