The Story of how the Bell Scandal broke

Occasionally I come across a story that is too good to just link to. Such is the case with this piece by James Spencer of PublicCEO.com. With permission, we are pleased to republish it here on TheLiberalOC.

The Story Of How The Bell Scandal Broke: An Account From LA Times Reporter Jeff Gottlieb

By: James Spencer, PublicCEO.com The world of local government shook on July 15.

It was the day that two Los Angeles Times journalists, Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives, broke the shocking story of corruption in the small city of Bell.

“Bell, one of the poorest cities in Los Angeles County, pays its top officials some of the highest salaries in the nation, including nearly $800,000 annually for its city manager, according to documents reviewed by The Times.”

Each day following the initial report, more news dripped from the leaky faucet in Bell, flooding the media world.

The city was exposed. The public’s reaction was impassioned. Local government officials everywhere were examined.

Seemingly each new day, Gottlieb and Vives continue to break another outrageous angle of the Bell story. Nearly a month after the initial report broke, Gottlieb says the story is, “nowhere near dead.”

How exactly did the scandal in the city of Bell break?

The trail began in early July, when Bell’s neighboring city of Maywood laid off all of its city employees and outsourced its services to Bell. Gottlieb and Vives wrote the story, and soon learned that the Los Angeles County District Attorney was investigating Bell for high salaries.

Gottlieb said that they were hearing things about Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo’s salary being near $300,000 to $400,000. So, the two reporters headed to Bell’s City Hall looking for hard numbers.

“We expected to see the contracts,” Gottlieb said in a phone interview with PublicCEO. “We expected they would just give them to us.”

But, for reasons that are now obvious, Bell wasn’t so quick to hand out the information.

Rizzo wouldn’t come out of his office. The reporters were forced to fill out a California Public Records Act request for the information. The city even charged a dollar for the Xerox copy.

Then came the waiting. The reporters waited 10 days before obtaining the information, calling Bell City Clerk, Rebecca Valdez, each day to check on the status of their request. Sometimes Valdez wouldn’t return calls, other days she would simply say the city was working on it.

On the ninth day of waiting, Gottlieb and Vives got a call from the city of Bell. Rizzo wanted to talk.

“Rizzo came to the phone and said they had the documents but wanted to sit down and talk,” Gottlieb said.

The meeting was – somewhat oddly – held in a conference room at a park in Bell the next day. Rizzo wasn’t alone. With him was Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia, Police Chief Randy Adams, City Councilman Luis Artiga, Mayor Oscar Hernandez and two lawyers.

“I knew something was up,” Gottlieb said. “My first thought was, ‘why are two lawyers here?’”

The city officials delivered the documents with salary information. Neither reporter had looked at the documents when Gottlieb fired the obvious question towards Rizzo: “So, how much do you make?”

“He coughs out $700,000,” Gottlieb said. “It was such an outrageous figure that I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly. I said, ‘how much?’ and he said it again. I turned to the police chief and asked the same question. He said $457,000. I then turned to Angela Spaccia and she said she didn’t know. Rizzo said she made about $350,000.”

Gottlieb said you could feel the tension in the room. He said it calmed down later and Rizzo was actually friendly. There was never a plea to the reporters not to write the story.

“He was utterly unrepentant,” Gottlieb said.

At that point, Gottlieb told Rizzo that he must be the highest paid City Manager in Los Angeles County. Rizzo replied, “I am sure I am.”

Talking with one another after the meeting, both reporters knew that Rizzo wasn’t just the highest paid City Manager in the county, but also in the state – and probably in the country.

“Of all the stories I have written, this has brought the highest level of outrage,” Gottlieb said.

With the outrage has come an outpouring of further tips and information to lead ongoing investigations into Bell and other cities. The result is a continuous stream of breaking news.

This past weekend, Gottlieb and Vives furthered the story by reporting that Rizzo received a package of benefits that increased his annual compensation to more than $1.5 million.

“From that story, we came up with five more stories,” Gottlieb said.

The stories by Gottlieb and Vines have changed how local governments operate now and into the future. The impact of the Bell scandal is far-reaching, leading to transparency policies for local governments throughout California.

At a time when newspapers continue to take an economic pounding, caught between a loyalty to the print publication and a search for an online business model, the two L.A. Times journalists have proven the importance of keen journalism.

For that alone, Gottlieb and Vines are deserving of a Pulitzer.

James Spencer can be reached at jspencer@publicceo.com you can also follow PublicCEO on Twitter @PublicCEO