TOPICS > Politics

Reporters Win Pulitzer for Exposing ‘Corruption on Steroids’ in Bell, Calif.

April 19, 2011 at 6:22 PM EDT
Los Angeles Times reporters Ruben Vives and Jeff Gottlieb were awarded the Pulitzer Prize Monday for uncovering a corruption scandal in Bell, Calif., that resulted in the arrest of eight former or current city officials. Margaret Warner discusses the investigation and the award with the two reporters.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, the tale of a corruption scandal in a small California town that has attracted national attention and the reporters who uncovered it.

Margaret Warner has the story.

MARGARET WARNER: Los Angeles Times reporters Ruben Vives and Jeff Gottlieb celebrated their Pulitzer win Monday for uncovering a massive local government corruption scandal.

Their first article on malfeasance in the Los Angeles area town of Bell, Calif., appeared last July under the eye-catching headline “Is a City Manager Worth $800,000?” Subsequent coverage revealed what local prosecutors called “corruption on steroids.” In a working-class town of just 38,000 people, eight current and former city officials, including members of the city council, were arrested in September.

The district attorney charged they engineered themselves huge salaries, outsized benefits and illegal loans totaling $5.5 million.

STEVE COOLEY, Los Angeles County district attorney: They used the tax dollars collected from the hardworking citizens of Bell as their own piggy bank, which they then looted at will.

MARGARET WARNER: The alleged mastermind was then-City Manager Robert Rizzo, who earned a combined $1.5 million a year in salary and benefits. He is accused of pulling other employees and some city council members into his scheme.

The so-called Bell Eight were arraigned last fall in Los Angeles County Superior Court. But the co-defendants, including former City Councilman Luis Artiga, have maintained their innocence.

LUIS ARTIGA, defendant: I know that the truth will set me free. I feel very strongly. I heard the evidence. And I know that I have done nothing wrong.

MARGARET WARNER: The Times has also reported a U.S. Justice Department probe into possibly illegal revenue raising by Bell police. A memo entitled “Bell Police Department Baseball Game” encouraged officers to score by giving out parking tickets and charging up to $2,000 to retrieve impounded cars.

OFFICER KURT OWENS, Bell Police Department: There was a piece of paper that had impounds, arrests, citations, parking citations. And you were to have to tell the sergeant prior to your shift how much you were going to do.

MARGARET WARNER: The scandal fueled a recall election last month. And on April 7, a new city council was sworn in.

And for more, we’re joined now by the two lead Los Angeles Times reporters who broke this story, those stories and helped win their paper the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service: Jeff Gottlieb, who has spent three decades in newspapers, and Ruben Vives, who’s been a reporter for just three years.

Welcome to you both, and congratulations.

JEFF GOTTLIEB, The Los Angeles Times: Thank you very much.

RUBEN VIVES, The Los Angeles Times: Thank you very much.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Jeff, you have done a lot of investigations in your career. What strikes you about the scope of this one?

JEFF GOTTLIEB: Well, what is striking is in fact the scope, how broad it was, how many things it included, that there just seemed to be so much corruption in Bell, for this small city of just 40,000 people.

I mean, Ruben and I would go out to report a story, and we’d come back with three more. And this happened over and over. It was just so broad.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, Ruben, when you first — you two first broke the first story last July, you — about the salaries — you pointed out in the story there was nothing inherently illegal about hefty salaries.

But as you dug deeper, you discovered a lot of illegality. Tell us a little bit.

RUBEN VIVES: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: Give us a sense of that.

RUBEN VIVES: Well, you know, we learned that he was obviously writing off his own contracts and basically just signing off on them without really the entire council’s approval.

And, you know, he was also, I think, giving out loans to other employees.

MARGARET WARNER: And this is, as Jeff just pointed out, a town of not only not many people, but it’s really a working-class town. How did they fund this operation, $5.5 million dollars?

RUBEN VIVES: Well, you know, it’s like Jeff said. You know, they went out of their way to make sure that they could continue receiving these hefty salaries, you know, from towing cars to even shaking down business owners and you know, these sort of shady deals that they were doing with business owners — property owners, I’m sorry.

And so, certainly they — and they were increasing property taxes illegally. I mean, I think they were the second highest in the Los Angeles County, for a small town like that.

MARGARET WARNER: Even though the median income was only $38,000 a year.

Jeff, Jeff Gottlieb, back to you. How did you get on to this? You started, you were really looking at the finances of a neighboring town, right, Maywood, that Bell was taking over because Maywood had fallen in a deep financial hole, as I understand it.

How did that lead you to this?

JEFF GOTTLIEB: Right.

Well, what happened is Bell was going to take over Maywood city services, as Maywood got rid of — laid off almost all of its city employees. We had heard there were investigations going on in Bell, so I called the district attorney’s office and asked if they were investigating Maywood and was told no. And I don’t know why, but I asked what about Bell?

And the answer came back, as a matter of fact, we’re investigating the high salaries of their city council members. And so we wrote a story about that, that the council members were getting paid about $100,000 a year. This is a part-time job. And that led Ruben and myself to go over to Bell and request some records of salaries, contracts, minutes of meetings, and that started the whole thing.

MARGARET WARNER: And they tried to stonewall you the first time you requested this, right, these records?

JEFF GOTTLIEB: Yes, when we went there at first, Bob Rizzo, the city manager, wouldn’t come talk to us. And so the city clerk came to us. And eventually she said, well you can have these documents in 10 days, which they were entitled to under the Public Records Act. But really it should have taken them about 10 minutes to give us that stuff.

And that, once again, you know, sort of raised our hackles and raised our radar. And when we asked for a copy of this document they had had us fill out, they charged us $1 for it. And so I was threatening to sue them if we didn’t get the documents within 10 days. And ultimately we did.  

MARGARET WARNER: Ruben, how did this go on for so long, do you think, without anyone noticing? I mean, were they kind of taking advantage of a town whose residents didn’t have a lot of political clout or sophistication, and there wasn’t a local newspaper looking into it?

RUBEN VIVES: Well, you know, the city of Bell is made up of 90 percent of Latinos, and 53 percent are foreign-born. So, there is certainly that little part of understanding how government works.

And I also think that the engagement wasn’t there. A lot of residents weren’t going to their council meetings. And — but, in addition to that, there wasn’t a paper. Also, there wasn’t any media looking at this area, being the watchdog. And certainly, this is what allowed these city officials to basically do what they were doing there.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Jeff, so what does this say to you about the value of this kind of in-depth newspaper reporting, even at a time when newspapers, including The L.A. Times, are struggling, to some degree?

JEFF GOTTLIEB: Well, I think what this shows is how important newspapers are.

I mean, one of the dynamics in this story was, in Bell, there had been people in the community who had filed Public Records Act requests and they had been — some had been pushed off. Others had been given, in fact, fake documents. But when a powerful institution like The L.A. Times came in and we threatened to sue, and they knew were serious — we were serious, you know, they couldn’t push us away.

I mean, this is just the sort of reporting that people depend on newspapers to do. And if newspapers don’t do it, no one else is going to do it.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Ruben, what would you add to that?

RUBEN VIVES: Well, I mean, certainly, I obviously agree with my colleague, you know, that this — newspapers are very important.

And one thing that I — that this Pulitzer award that the paper received is such a great honor because it really represents what newspapers do, I think what journalists do, which is, we provide a public service for a — for the community. And, again, this situation that happened in Bell, it just stresses the idea that, you know, newspapers are needed.

MARGARET WARNER: Mm-hmm. And it could be happening elsewhere.

Well, congratulations to you both, Ruben Vives and Jeff Gottlieb, and The L.A. Times. Thanks a lot.

JEFF GOTTLIEB: Thanks.

RUBEN VIVES: Thank you.

JEFF GOTTLIEB: Thank you.