When Bell city officials starting raking in obscene salary amounts, it’s a safe bet that they never considered the California Public Records Act. The law that discloses almost anything related to politicians’ lives would prove to be their undoing when placed in the hands of an enterprising journalist. Eight Bell officials were arrested today for the misappropriation of $5.5 million. Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley called the Bell scandal “corruption on steroids.”
By TORI RICHARDS OF CALWATCHDOG.ORG – Bombshell allegations of wrongdoing are always followed by a media frenzy of damning proportions and the inevitable probe by prosecutors. And in this case, the repercussions have reached to the state Legislature, where lawmakers — who make paltry salaries by comparison – work feverishly to right the wrongs by refunding taxpayer dollars and closing loopholes that allow such behavior to flourish.
All of this has created almost endless possibilities for journalists across the nation as they put their local politicians under the salary microscope, looking for the next big scandal.
It’s already happened with Bell’s neighboring city, Vernon, which has been quietly funding first-class airfare, limousines, Ritz-Carlton hotel stays and large salaries for its political figures in the midst of layoffs. The Los Angeles Times exposed this recently and like Bell, prosecutors are investigating.
“We’re constantly using the Public Records Act,” said Los Angeles Times reporter Jeff Gottlieb, who broke the Bell story with partner Ruben Vives. “If someone doesn’t want to comply (with the law) it makes me even more suspicious.”
The California Public Records Act, which mirrors the federal Freedom of Information Act, requires public officials to disclose salaries, benefits and expenditures to the public. Political candidates must make similar disclosures. By law, records must be released within 10 working days barring extenuating circumstances.
Gottlieb was looking at why the Los Angeles suburb of Maywood was laying off its entire workforce when he got a tip regarding high salaries for nearby Bell.
“It rang bells in my head,” Gottlieb said in a recent phone conversation. “It reminded me of a project I did where the East Palo Alto Sanitary District built a Taj Mahal headquarters and had travel, hotels and rental cars. A lot of very questionable expenses, and at least one person was charged (with a crime).”
So Gottlieb and Vives went to Bell City Hall and asked the clerk for a variety of public documents such as board minutes and employee contracts. They filled out a form and when they asked for a copy of their request, were charged $1. The clerk said to come back in 10 days.
Gottlieb kept track of his request by calling every day. When it appeared that he was being stonewalled, he said: “Look, we don’t want to sue you, but trust me – we will. And we will ask the judge to have you pay our legal expenses under the law.”
On Day 9 Gottlieb was asked to attend a meeting with City Manager Robert Rizzo to go over the expenses. He arrived with Vives and was greeted by Rizzo, Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia, police Chief Randy Adams, council members from Bell and Maywood, and two attorneys.
“The documents were sitting on the table, they clearly expected us to go through the documents and ask them questions and I had no intention of doing that,” Gottlieb said. “We talked and I turned to Rizzo and said, ‘How much do you make?’ Rizzo literally coughed out: “$700,000.”
The reporters had heard rumors of the $300,000-$400,000 range and were taken aback.
“I wasn’t quite sure I was hearing correctly,” Gottlieb said. “I thought he maybe said $7,000 a month. I said: ‘Pardon me?’ and he said: “700.”
Adams then stated that he made $457,000 a year after retiring from a chief’s job in Glendale where he made $215,000. Spaccia said she didn’t know her salary, but Rizzo volunteered that she made $350,000 a year.
“If people want to choke on that, that’s OK. You get what you pay for,” Rizzo proclaimed, bragging that he could make just as much in the private sector.
The story made national headlines after it broke in late June. Other stories garnered through use of the Public Records Act followed regarding questionable city loans Rizzo made to two businesses without the council’s approval, a high salary for the mayor of the Los Angeles suburb of Compton, and the Vernon expenses.
In that case, city administrators were found to earn upwards of $1.6 million in 2008. They took a 2007 trip to New York first class, staying in a hotel at the rate of $800 per night. One official, Eric T. Fresch, lived in Northern California and commuted at taxpayer expense. The city of Vernon is mostly industrial and has only 90 residents. Still, city workers were not immune to the recession and found themselves with pink slips and no health insurance in the midst of this flagrant spending.
Our forefathers never dreamed that such extravagance could take place and without open records laws none of this would have come to light. Usually the public finds out about wrongdoing after it has happened, but in one instance, the Public Records Act was actually used to head off pending wastefulness.
ABC-TV’s Los Angeles affiliate KABC discovered last December that Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas was planning on spending $707,000 to renovate his offices in the midst of budget shortfalls and layoffs. The ensuing public hue and cry tabled the remodeling efforts even though they had been approved by a majority vote.
Ridley-Thomas initially defended his actions on camera.
“There is no reason to believe this office should have anything less than any other office. That day is gone, over. Goodbye,” he stated, referring to how colleagues have received remodels. What he didn’t state was that those were in better economic times, less extensive, and at a fraction of the cost.
“I’m here to celebrate one year of hard work and it seems to me to work in an environment that’s decent is part of what it means to keep people motivated,” he added.
Wouldn’t keeping one’s job be motivation enough? Several county workers could be spared unemployment with that $707,000 price tag.
“I was due for a (city) car two years ago,” said Los Angeles city Councilman Dennis Zine in response to questions about Ridley-Thomas’ spending. Zine often speaks out about wastefulness and says he gives his pension as a retired police officer to charity. “How could I do that with good conscience – order a new car? Things are tough. We should not spend money in these times. My car has 130,000 miles and I have no intention of getting rid of it.”
Zine says that because politician can spend money, many of them just do.
“The Public Records Act is there for the public to keep what is an allegedly transparent government honest,” he said. “It’s so the public can get information they desire. The government is paid for by the people and the people have a right to inquire.