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Is corruption 'a way of life' in L.A., as Kevin James claims?

Rainey logoMayoral hopeful Kevin James has been depicting Los Angeles City Hall as one of America’s great hothouses of corruption. The former radio talk show host memorialized that claim this week with an Internet-only ad that declares:  “Corruption is the way of life in City Hall, making L.A. one of the most corrupt regions in America.”

The charge is as unfocused as the images in the ad—which features actors portraying rivals Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti burying bodies in the middle of the night. Although the James camp suggests that the city is an epicenter of fraud in America, the facts don’t back that view.

The claim is based on a 2012 University of Illinois study that showed the Los Angeles region had the second-highest number of public corruption convictions, following only the Chicago and surrounding communities.

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But that headline comes with a raft of caveats—the kind that wouldn't fit into a hyperbolic campaign video.

The stats are based on prosecutions by the federal government from 1976 until 2010 and, for Los Angeles, that includes the entire seven-county region that makes up the U.S. judiciary's Central District of California. With more than 18 million residents, it is by far the most populous federal jurisdiction in America, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.

The Greater Los Angeles area scores high in the total number of corruption cases, in other words, because it has more people, and government officials, to be corrupted. 

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But what about when the impacts of sheer size are factored out? The Illinois study did not break out per-capita rates of corruption by city or region. But it did offer figures for states. By that measure, California ranked 35th in number of convictions for public corruption over the years of the study.

The “leaders” in the Most Corrupt derby were the District of Columbia, Lousiana, Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania.

Cities in southeast Los Angeles county have been most notable in recent years for venality and self- dealing. Officials in the U.S. attorney’s office said they can remember only a handful of recent cases against employees for the city of Los Angeles.

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Three former Los Angeles Building and Safety inspectors have been convicted of taking bribes in a probe that began in 2010. A former official of the Housing Authority got 51 months in prison last year for diverting more than $500,000 to a sham company he set up with his brothers.

Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon and his wife have been charged with lying about where they lived in order to pave the way for his runs for office. (Those state charges were not counted in the university study that has been cited by the James camp. It tallied only federal corruption convictions.)  

Political scientist Dick Simpson of the University of Illinois, one of the author’s of the corruption study, said the worst abuses tend to be in other parts of the country, not California.

GRAPHIC: Where do mayoral candidates stand?

“You essentially have in Los Angeles a reform city,” said Simpson. “The places with most corruption, like Chicago and New Orleans, come out of machine politics and you don’t have the same thing out there.”

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-- James Rainey

Times political writer James Rainey will be filing dispatches from the campaign trail during the 2013 Los Angeles elections season. You can follow him on Twitter.com/LATimesrainey

 
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