Preventing 'The Next Bell': The Impact Of A Calif. City Investigation

The cash-strapped city of Bell, Calif., is seeing justice after an almost four-year investigation of top city officials. Guest host Tess Vigeland speaks with Los Angeles Times reporter Ruben Vives.

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TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

Again, you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Tess Vigeland. For the past four years, Bell, California, a city just a few miles south of downtown Los Angeles, has been embroiled in a complex and sprawling political and financial scandal. Top city officials were accused of bilking the city of at least $11 million through huge pay packages and other perks. This past week, prosecutors secured final plea deals in the case.

The one official was sentenced Thursday to almost 12 years in prison. L.A. Times reporter Ruben Vives broke the story as part of a team that eventually went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for its investigation. Four years ago, they discovered that the district attorney's office had been looking into some oddly high salaries being drawn by officials in Bell.

RUBEN VIVES: We said, well, how high are they? And they told us it was about $100,000 a year. And we thought, are we sure about that? And so - and this is part-time work. And so, you know, they should be making about $8,000 a year. So that's when we really started looking into things in the city of Bell.

VIGELAND: Yeah, so if this were Los Angeles, you know, you might not look askance at that kind of number. But describe Bell for us so we get a sense of the city itself and why that would be so surprising.

VIVES: Sure. Bell is a two-square mile city with a population of about 37,000 residents. The majority of them are Latinos with half of that population being undocumented immigrants. You know, it's a poor town. It's a working-class town. And so these kinds of salaries you just wouldn't expect there.

VIGELAND: So from that tax base it would be very hard to imagine where all that money came from.

VIVES: Very hard to imagine that, yes.

VIGELAND: The city administrator was Robert Rizzo and he was really the kingpin of this operation. How was he abusing his office?

VIVES: He pretty much ran the city. He had full control of the city and he could use municipal funds for just about anything he wanted. He was giving out loans to employees. He gave a loan to a car dealership without any council approval.

VIGELAND: So he had no oversight.

VIVES: He had no oversight. No one could challenge him. And anyone who did sort of got a piece of his wrath. So he had this control over the city that, you know, even the police department, it was sort of having to impound vehicles of undocumented immigrants. And they had to meet a quota system.

VIGELAND: And what you mean is that that was all in the service of raising the funds...

VIVES: Right.

VIGELAND: ...that he could then raid.

VIVES: Yeah, yeah. So, you know, you had shaking down business owners to illegally raising property taxes. They had code enforcement officers just citing everyone for everything. You couldn't even have your car parked outside of your house with a for sale sign because that was considered a garage sale. And they were just fining people left and right to make sure that they could keep these salaries. And by the time we had stumbled onto the story, the city was pretty much at the edge of bankruptcy.

VIGELAND: So overall, he pulled in what, a million-and-a-half, something like that?

VIVES: In the end we figured out that he had been making $1.5 million.

VIGELAND: What happened to him eventually?

VIVES: Well, he was arrested. He was charged with 69 felonies and had recently now just pleaded no contest to those charges. And a lot of - most of those are for misappropriation of public funds.

VIGELAND: Has what happened in Bell led to any changes in the way that California cities safeguard against this kind of corruption? Are city governments more transparent? Is there anymore oversight?

VIVES: Yeah, I mean, that's the beauty of the story. It did lead to a lot of changes in municipal government. A lot of cities and agencies are just very, very open now because they don't want to be named the next Bell, you know. There's now a law that requires that agencies publish the salaries of their employees so it's easy for you to look to see how much your city administrator's making, how much your council members are making.

VIGELAND: That's a new state law?

VIVES: And that's a new law, right.

VIGELAND: Ruben Vives is one of the reporters at the L.A. Times who won a Pulitzer Price for their investigation into the Bell corruption scandal. Thank you so much for coming in.

VIVES: Thank you for having me.

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