MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.
It is by now beyond dispute that something went terribly awry in Bell, California. Bell is a small working-class city near Los Angeles. This week, eight current and former city officials were arrested and charged with enriching themselves with public money.
Little of this would've happened without the aggressive and unrelenting work of a pair of Los Angeles Times reporters. But, as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, the story almost escaped their attention.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: You hear about reporters getting threatened, dismissed or just plain ignored. Not so common: the experience of one young reporter who broke a lot of those stories in Bell. As he waded into a crowded city council meeting there, an older woman asked him...
Mr. RUBEN VIVES (Los Angeles Times): Youre Ruben Vives from the L.A. Times. I said yes. And she just says give me a hug. And so I hug her and then everyone's clapping and yelling and it's like, yeah, and taking pictures and it was just a bizarre thing to me.
FOLKENFLIK: Bell is not a city accustomed to getting attention from the L.A. Times. There are 88 cities in Los Angeles County and countless water boards, school districts and the like, so many that L.A. Times reporters often treat their territory like foreign correspondents - dipping in but not lingering.
Vives covers the hard-pressed southeastern part of the county, including Bell, a densely-packed city of 36,000 people, mostly Mexican-Americans with a smattering of Lebanese immigrants.
Local activist Cristina Garcia gave me a tour.
Ms. CRISTINA GARCIA: Well, I mean you have, you know, your furniture stores, (unintelligible) mom and pop stores. You know, you had a little bike shop that we just passed up, a place that does lawn mower repair. This is where we have the food bank, so every Thursday they pass out food to the residents.
FOLKENFLIK: Many residents depend on public jobs or public assistance. A sizeable number are not citizens. Many kept quiet when their public service taxes doubled. Garcia says the door was open...
Ms. GARCIA: For these predators to come in and take advantage of the situation.
Ms. GARCIA: Yeah. I mean I really feel like they prey on these communities. It's an easy target. In this case, I think it's bankrupted the community.
FOLKENFLIK: Vives tripped over the story in June. The neighboring city of Maywood was so strapped for cash, it wanted Bell to take over city services, like policing. But his colleague Jeff Gottlieb learned of an investigation into pay for Bell's city council. Their attention swung to Bell and they demanded public records.
Mr. JEFF GOTTLIEB (Los Angeles Times): Every day, I'm calling the city clerk. I'm telling her, listen, we really don't want to sue you, but, you know, we will, and then when we go to court, and we win, because we will, we'll ask the judge to make you pay our legal bills, because that's what the statute says.
FOLKENFLIK: The city manager, Robert Rizzo, relented, but they had to meet him at a meeting room near a city park for kids. That was weird enough - but nine city officials and lawyers showed up.
Mr. GOTTLIEB: Pretty quickly, I ask Bob Rizzo, how much money do you make? He just kind of coughed out $700,000, and I wasnt quite sure I was hearing him correctly. I thought maybe he said $7,000; maybe he was talking weekly, monthly. So I said, how much? And he says $700,000.
FOLKENFLIK: Rizzo was being modest. He was being paid $1.5 million in all. The reporters painstakingly pieced together the puzzle. Only 400 people took part in a 2005 vote that made Bell a charter city. New city commissions gave council members new posts that paid them big bucks, out of the public eye.
Council meetings used to draw four people. Since the Times began to focus on Bell: as many as 2,000.
(Soundbite of protest)
Unidentified Man: And they will not get away with what they are doing. We won't be happy until we get our money.
FOLKENFLIK: It turns out public service taxes were doubled to boost compensation for Rizzo. Other taxes went sky high too. Investigators are now looking at contracts worth tens of millions of dollars given to associates and some taxes are being returned to residents.
But in a perfect world, someone would have called foul years ago.
Mr. ARNOLD ADLER (Wave Community Newspapers): Our policy pretty much is we report the news, we don't make the news.
FOLKENFLIK: Arnold Adler of the Wave community newspapers has covered Bell since 1980. He also covers 14 other cities and says he doesn't have time to do much more than make calls after official meetings.
Mr. ADLER: So we don't have the people or staff to go digging around, hoping that we stumble on a scandal.
FOLKENFLIK: One blogger actually has anonymously alleged corruption in Bell for years on watchourcity.com. In public he wears a Mexican-style wrestling mask because he fears retribution, so we won't name him. The paper's reporters say he gave them tips and he says the newspaper's reporting muscle and huge audience gave life to the story in a way he couldn't.
When I met with more than two dozen angry Bell residents at the makeshift office of BASTA, a new community group, I learned some had gone to city hall to get their own answers.
Mr. MIGUEL SANCHEZ (Teacher's Aide): We never have access. They keep giving you the runaround, they keep telling you, oh, we'll call back or we'll get, you know, just give us a call back. No one could ever help us. No one was ever around.
FOLKENFLIK: Miguel Sanchez, a special education teacher's aide, says the lies only stopped when the L.A. Times came to town.
Mr. SANCHEZ: As a common citizen, I don't know what my rights are with the city. I don't know really how to attack them. But with The Times, they have, you know, their legal departments. Of course they're able to get more than a regular Joe like me.
FOLKENFLIK: But the Times can't be everywhere. Its news staff is half the size it once was and its parent company is in bankruptcy. Editors say they have to pick their spots. Close to a dozen reporters and editors are now writing about the scandal as it spreads to many cities nearby.
The story is a shot in the arm for the beleaguered L.A. Times. But it's also energized residents of a city that has avoided tough scrutiny for far too long.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.
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