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Festival of Books: Reporting on Bell, the back story

May 1, 2011 |  4:31 pm

Robert Rizzo in court
The Festival of Books is certainly about books, but it is also about storytelling. And although the two Los Angeles Times reporters who uncovered the massive scandal in Bell don't yet have a book, they certainly have an engaging story to tell, and they did that Sunday before an audience of several hundred rapt listeners at USC.

Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives, who led the Times investigation that was recently awarded the coveted Pulitzer Prize for public service, were joined on the panel by Rick Cole, the city manager of Ventura. The Times reporters recounted how they came upon the story somewhat by accident while inquiring about financial problems in the nearby city of Maywood.

They recounted how Bell city officials stonewalled them initially, but nine days later, then-City Administrator Robert Rizzo agreed to meet them -- not at the city hall, but at a local park. So the two reporters went to the park.

Rizzo was accompanied by 10 other officials, including the chief of police, in an apparent attempt to intimidate the reporters. But it was at that meeting that the reporters found that Rizzo was being paid $700,000 a year to run a city with an annual budget of maybe $5 million.

From that first meeting, Times reporters laid out a tale of public corruption that was unprecedented in Southern California.

Cole said residents of the nine municipalities in southeast Los Angeles are victims of some of the least effective governments imaginable.

"There are few checks and balances" and little oversight from outside news media, Cole said. He cited the city of Vernon as a prime example of municipal governance gone wrong. He noted that there was a bill in the state Legislature to put Vernon out of business.

He also criticized the erosion of the ethic of public service, saying that problematic cities like Bell need engaged leaders ready to face tough financial challenges. "A monkey can be the city manager of Beverly Hills," Cole said.

Cole also pointed out that there are 5,000 government agencies in Southern California, including water boards and sanitation districts. Many of these boards have hefty budgets and little oversight, creating  opportunities for corruption. He said consolidation was one key way to improve local government.

In recounting their investigation, Vives said he was fortunate to come upon a source who was willing to give him extensive documents on the financial dealings of Rizzo and several other Bell officials. This person, Vives said, didn't want to get involved and was frightened about his future. But, Vives said, that source was "the real hero" of the Bell investigation because the large box of documents opened previously closed doors.

Vives also noted that the recently elected city government has a large hill to climb, with a $5-million deficit, but seemed engaged in going about its work in a serious-minded way. Its recent first meeting started around 7 in the evening and ended at 3:30 the next morning.

The session ended with a hearty round of applause for the Times reporters and Cole, and several people coming up to thank them and shake their hands.


Bell timeline: 'Corruption on steroids'

Complete coverage of the Bell salary scandal

-- Jon Thurber

Photo: Robert Rizzo, former city administrator of Bell, in court March 10. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times