Public record request reveals corruption in city government

Daniel Skallman | Freedom of Information | Feature | September 28, 2010

Eight Bell, Calif., city officials were arrested last week on corruption charges after public records requests and a subsequent investigation by the Los Angeles Times revealed government corruption and prompted a larger investigation by the Los Angeles County district attorney.

Times reporters Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives began their investigation in June while working on a story about the city of Maywood, Calif., which had recently laid off nearly all city employees and contracted the positions out to the nearby town of Bell, according to Gottlieb. The day after their story was published, the reporters learned that the district attorney was investigating several Bell city council members who were earning nearly $100,000 each in annual salaries, Gottlieb said.

After learning of the DA’s probe, Vives and Gottlieb went to Bell to file a request under the California Public Records Act to view city council minutes, expenses and employment contracts. These documents are typically easy to obtain, Gottlieb said. However, the city clerk did not immediately release the documents, telling the reporters they would have to wait 10 days, the maximum time a government agency has to produce a public record in California.

When told he would have to wait for the records, “my jaw sort of dropped,” Gottlieb said. “It made no sense for them to wait that long. They should just be able to hand us a folder with the minutes in it.”

After filing the request, Gottlieb made daily phone calls to the Bell city clerk and was repeatedly told that the documents weren’t ready, he said. The reporters then demanded the release of the documents, threatening to sue the city.

“I told the clerk, ‘Look, we don’t want to sue you, but we will, and when we win -- and we will -- we’ll ask the judge to make you guys pay our legal fees, because that’s what’s in the law,'” Gottlieb said.

Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo finally agreed to release the documents at an offsite meeting in a city park, Gottlieb said. When Gottlieb asked Rizzo how much he earned annually, Rizzo reported his salary to be $700,000, less than half his actual compensation, according to Gottlieb.

Three Bell city officials, including Rizzo, resigned later in the summer after the Times broke the news about their salaries, according to National Public Radio. Gottlieb said that the reporters’ use of the public records act was essential to exposing the city government’s corruption and spurring the DA’s further investigation.

“It was crucial because it gave us access to the records. They couldn’t lie to us,” he said, adding that he and Vives have filed several more public records requests as they continue to investigate and report stories about the Bell city council.

“It has continued to be crucial, as much of our reporting has continued to be based on documents obtained through the public records act,” he said.

Although the Times was the first to break the story about the corruption in Bell, city council members had long been suspected of corruption by those living in the town, according to NPR. Bell citizens were prevented from uncovering the salary discrepancies earlier because Rizzo falsified documents detailing his salary before releasing them to the public, Gottlieb explained. He also said that ordinary citizens typically don’t have the resources to bring a lawsuit against a city council.

“If a local citizen wanted to sue, he’d probably have to pay all the costs out of pocket,” he said. Rather, it took the financial and investigative resources of the Times to obtain the documents needed to prove the corruption.

“We’re a big organization. We have attorneys at our disposal, and we’ll use them,” Gottlieb said.

The eight arrested Bell city council members are currently awaiting trial and California Attorney General Jerry Brown has sued to recover excess money the officials had been paid in annual salaries, Gottlieb said. He also indicated that the district attorney could eventually bring forth additional charges as the investigation continues.