In the newspaper business, when editors are asked what kinds of stories they want to go after, there's a popular two-word answer. The first word is "holy" and the second word is unprintable.
Well, friends, my Times colleagues Ruben Vives and Jeff Gottlieb dug up a genuine "holy [cow]" story in the town of Bell last week, exposing the staggering, colossal, unconscionable salaries that city officials have awarded themselves under the radar of the struggling town's residents.
On Monday, I drove to Bell to see if I could make sense of how it all happened. I parked at City Hall, walked up to the counter and asked to speak to the nearly $800,000-a-year city manager, because I was dying to see what such a specimen looks like.
A clerk dutifully took my name and disappeared. On his salary, Robert Rizzo — or should I say Ratso Rizzo — would surely want to take me out to a nice lunch. Or perhaps pay off my mortgage. He was dumb and arrogant enough, after all, to tell my Times colleagues that if his $787,637 salary was "a number people choke on, maybe I'm in the wrong business. I could go into private business and make that money."
When the clerk returned, she told me Mr. Humility was unavailable.
Maybe he was busy testing the waters in private business, because now that he's been exposed, I'm betting it will get a little hot for old Ratso — and his $376,288 assistant, and the city's $457,000 police chief, and the $100,000 part-time council members. In fact, it already is. Outraged citizens descended on City Hall by the hundreds Monday night demanding that the bums be tossed out on their ears.
"They've awakened a sleeping giant," Denisse Rodarte, a lifelong Bell resident and one of the organizers of the rally, told me in her home a short distance from City Hall.
But why was the giant asleep in the first place, and unaware of the plundering?
Corruption is everywhere in California and beyond, from civic centers to Wall Street. But there's a particular strain of brazen malfeasance in south and southeast L.A. County, with a shameful history of headlines emanating from Maywood and South Gate and Compton and Carson, to name a few. Whether you're talking to residents or think-tank types, you hear some common themes.
Those cities have largely poor, immigrant populations that are too busy working to pay close attention to City Hall, which means they can be easily exploited. Voter turnout is low, in part because many residents are undocumented and even many legal immigrants aren't yet qualified to vote. And there's not much media presence because of cutbacks by everyone in the industry, including The Times, so the rascals are left to steal with impunity.
"It's a very predatory type of mentality," said Cristina Garcia, a Bell Gardens resident who is an adjunct professor at USC.
Garcia, who is now helping organize protests in nearby Bell, said she suspects the vultures deliberately move into cities where they think it'll be easy pickings. Rizzo moved to Bell from Hesperia in 1993 at a salary of $72,000. By 2005, as Vives and Gottlieb reported, he was up to $442,000, and his contract was amended to give him 12% increases annually. The boobs on the City Council, meanwhile, altered the City Charter so they wouldn't have to comply with state guidelines on council salaries.
The cynic in me wonders who's rubbing whose back and what they're getting out of it. And in fact, the L.A. County district attorney is investigating Bell's exorbitant City Council paychecks.
But this may merely be a case of city officials bellying up to the trough and grabbing all they can.
"People get power and it turns to greed," said South Gate Mayor Henry Gonzalez, who was punched by a fellow council member and shot in the head by an unknown assailant back when his town was being ravaged by City Hall thieves in a corruption scandal 10 years ago.
Jaime Regalado of Cal State L.A.'s Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute for Public Affairs said officials in southeastern L.A. County have taken advantage of the fact that many immigrant residents aren't shocked by corruption, having come from countries where it's even more blatant.
"But when it hits the press, as it has in Bell, there's the potential for an uprising," Regalado said.
In fact, no one in Bell knew about the inflated salaries before The Times blasted them across Page 1. But that's not because nobody was interested in local affairs, Denisse Rodarte insisted. It's because City Hall was run like the Kremlin.
"We're not ignorant," said Rodarte, a college grad who works in the nonprofit medical field.
Lots of hard-working people care about their community and how it's run, she said. But it's been impossible to get information out of City Hall, whether she was asking about how to volunteer at the food bank or about why, when there's plenty to worry about at home, Bell officials took over some services for nearby Maywood, which has its own history of rotten scoundrels.
Rodarte said residents were mocked and degraded by council members when they protested the Maywood deal, but they're not going to back down again. She's now signed on with the Bell Assn. to Stop the Abuse (or BASTA, which means "enough" in Spanish), and along with Garcia, her ally from Bell Gardens, she's trying to organize such a movement across southeast L.A. County.
All of which brings us back to Bell's city manager, who makes twice as much as President Obama.
Are people choking on that number, Ratso? Yep.
If there's justice, you'll be the first thing they spit out.