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Bell Investigation Produces Pulitizer, More Watchdogs

Audio

Aired 4/22/11

When news broke last summer that the city manager of the tiny California city of Bell earned twice the salary of the President of the United States, it set off a firestorm of public outrage. A team of reporters at the Los Angeles Times spent weeks uncovering the story. This week the LA Times was awarded the Pulitzer for public service reporting for this series.

ALISON ST. JOHN: When news broke last summer that the city manager of the tiny California city of Bell earned twice the salary of the President of the United States, it set off a firestorm of public outrage. A team of reporters at the Los Angeles Times spent weeks uncovering the story that just kept on revealing more and more shocking details…

The investigation led to media stories all over the state analyzing public sector salaries and benefits, though none uncovered anything close to that scale of excess. This week the LA Times was awarded the Pulitzer for public service reporting for this series.

GUESTS: Tony Perry, San Diego Bureau Chief, LA Times

Jim Watters, Defense editor, San Diego Union tribune

JW August, managing editor, 10News

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: When news broke last summer that the city manager of the tiny city of bell earned twice the salary of the president of the United States, it set off a fire storm of public outrage. A team of reports at the LA Times spent weeks uncovering the story that just kept on revealing more and more smoking details. The investigation led to media stories all over the state, analyzing public sector salaries and benefits, though none, I think, covered anything close to that scale of excess. This week, the LA Times was awarded the Pulitzer for public service reporting for this series. So Tony, first of all congratulations to the LA Times, and give us a bit of the back story about how the reporters, Jeff Gottlieb, and Ruben Bibez caught word of this story.

PERRY: First a disclaimer, I had absolutely no role in this. I was strictly a reader, an avid reader of the website and the newspaper. Ruben and Jeff got a tip that there was something strange in Bell, this little blue collar community of 38000 in LA County. Went down there and started poking around and asking for documents and not taking no for an answer and asking inconvenient questions. They went down there and did those things that reporters are supposed to do. And they hit the mother load. First the enormous salaries that were being paid to counsel members and $100,000 a story for part time work as a counsel member in a city of 38000. Also the city manager, a rotund individual named Robert Rizzo, he gave out his salary as 700000, but indeed it was over a million. And so that hit the front page pretty substantially. Even then it was noted in the first story that high salaries alone are not illegal. But upon further investigation, the way those salaries were derived, the way the paperwork was played fast and loose with, some laws involved that are supposed to cap pensions, that all came out, as did some self dealing with loans, and some approving of pension increases for yourself without going through the process. And now of course there's been indictments all the we around. Everybody pleading innocent, trial's yet to come. But it sure looks bad. And it led to a revolution in this little city. Throw out the rascal and get a whole new group. And so these folks have a shot hat a cleaner government. We'll see if they can handle it, but they have a shot thanks to Ruben and Jeff.

ST. JOHN: How big a team and how much time did they -- how much resources did they --

PERRY: Well, there is something called Team Bell, that's made reference to. Again, Jeff and Ruben are the main horses, they broke the story, the developed it, their by lines are on the major stories. But at least a dozen other reporters at various times and three very good editors, Shelby Grad, and Kimmy Yoshino, and Steve marble, [CHECK AUDIO] I know that that's boiler plate what people say. In this case it's absolutely true. It has been a team effort and will be continue to be both in Bell, and then there's some other interesting cities in LA County, Vernon and Montebello, among them, we'll see what transpires if those places.

ST. JOHN: Well, JW, public skepticism about public employees' salaries has sort of become the norm now as a result of this. But everyone's started doing stories. I suppose Channel Ten did some stories as well.

AUGUST: We have, with our friends at the UT.

ST. JOHN: Did you discover anything even approaching what bell --

AUGUST: No, no. And I also think it was a perfect storm because here we're having budget problems in Sacramento, all the local governments are having tight billion, and then we hear about this, and it just -- there was a frenzy of all kind of coverage like this. I could go -- there's a long list of stuff we did down here locally, but it probably was driven by the tight budgets and the LA Times story.

ST. JOHN: Right. I mean, if most public employees' salaries are in fact reasonable, I don't know if that's what your investigations discovered. Are the conclusions that -- or some people are drawing as a result of the Bell investigation, perhaps, you know, not in fact the right ones to be drawing about public employees' salaries in general?

AUGUST: I'm sorry, I didn't follow your question.

ST. JOHN: Oh, well, I think that it really made the public very skeptical about public employees' salaries.

AUGUST: Oh, yes. It just added to our skepticism.

ST. JOHN: The ethos now that the public employees are ripping off the --

AUGUST: Right, what we if found is mainly not the salaries but the perks of the cars, you can accumulate sick leave until you retire, and you get that money at the end of your term of retirement. Things like that. It's the other things that I think have been exposed locally by the media.

ST. JOHN: And it's been very difficult, really, to make comparisons between benefits because they're all so different. You can't really compare apples and apples.

PERRY: Bell, as one prosecutor has pointed out, was greed and illegality on steroids. Bell was as if all the human greed and tendency toward doing illegal things was all concentrated in one place at one time. So that's not the case from what we can tell in other cities. So Bell really is the exception that proves the rule, I suppose. The whole issue of public employees' compensation, their pensions, and those little goodies that J. W talks about, where you can take home your unused sick leave, and this that and the other, is almost separate is apart from what Bell is. Bell just turned up the wattage on the light being shown on public employees and managers, I must say I found it interesting even though no criminality has been found how much city managers of suburban cities make. How much hospital administrators make, and as J. W points out, all these little goodies where you can take home your unused sick leave, and you get free medical when you retire, and you get extra if you speak a little Spanish or if you can do CPR or all sorts of things like that. All of which either the private industry either didn't have or if they had them, pensions and health benefit for retirees, and that kind of thing have been stripped away as the economy has hit the skids but they're alive and well in public employment.

WATERS: You raise a good point about that, you know, public employees and compensation, and the like. But when you talk about private industry, I don't think you need to -- you shouldn't even look high level executive pay. A lot of these same perks you're talking about are very prevalent among the higher level executives where there's almost no over sight for how much compensation these people make.

PERRY: And I agree with you, and the New York Times used to do story after story after story about high level of compensation on wall street. And I never understood, well, okay, so what? Who cares? Then I realized, or maybe they pointed out that when you have a bonus driven system where there's a lot of money to be made, suddenly that becomes what it is we're doing. We're churning, we're putting together these investment instruments that nobody understands and that they all collapse. Why are we doing it? Because everybody wants in on the big bonuses. So yes. I agree.

WATERS: On wall street for sure.

PERRY: Indeed.

WATERS: But if you're talking about corporate America too, are the check on executive pay is supposed to be the owner of the company, share holders. And how often do we see the share holders feign, hey, that's too much? Instead the companies decide we're gonna pay these companies what we want to pay them.

ST. JOHN: And Jim I'm glad you're bringing up the comparison with the private sector because in some ways, the reason there's so much resentment about public sector salaries is because private sector salaries issue the base one, seem to be falling.

WATERS: Which is totally true. But not once you reach the higher echelons of these companies.

ST. JOHN: Tony?

PERRY: There seems to be a syndrome among boards of trustees of these companies that say, hey, let's make our CEO rich. I want to find a company that wants to make me rich. You're right. I always found it odd that when companies do really, really well, the CEO gets a lot of money, he takes the credit. When they do poorly, he gets a lot of money because I guess the theory is we'd have done worse if we didn't have this wonder man.

WATERS: Exactly.

PERRY: Not a bad deal, not a bad deal.

ST. JOHN: I wonder sometimes why it is that we're all fighting to bring down the public sector salaries instead of fighting to raise the private sector salaries.

WATERS: Exactly.

ST. JOHN: Jim, I just wanted to ask you, as editor with the Union Tribune, could you think that papers today can undertake as many of these kind of public investigative stories as the public needs?

WATERS: Well, undoubtedly, it's more difficult now. [] There's no question about that. But we at the UT, we have definitely made a commitment to watch dog as J. W knows, our watch dog team, we have a core group whose sole job is to look into thing as deeply as possible, particularly public entity, cities, and we're doing our best. To do that.

ST. JOHN: And what about at channel ten? I mean I know J. W, you've done quite a lot of investigative stuff.

AUGUST: For years.

ST. JOHN: But is it the market changing how are you adapting to the tighter budgets?

AUGUST: In smaller staff. We cherry pick things. I know that Ricky and I over at the UT have a long shopping list, and are always trying to figure out, okay, which one are we gonna focus on? Which one is gonna have a better pay off? There's no lack of material of it's just deciding and coloring what you're gonna chase.

ST. JOHN: All right. I'd like to put a call out here, 1-888-895-5727 is the number it you'd like to join us at the roundtable, with Tony perry of the La Times, JW August of Ten News, and Jim Waters of the San Diego Union Tribune. Do you think that the media is strong enough and that it is producing the kind of investigative stories that we know? What should papers and news stations be focusing on these days? We'd like to are had you and your opinion of the strength of the media. Because I think this Pulitzer in some ways, you know, you could argue that it's a sign that the investigative reporting is still, live and well and that papers are still doing their job to dig out the public interest stories. But as people who are actually editors in news rooms, do you have concerns at all that the ability of the media to do that now is --

PERRY: Enormous concerns. We have, I think the figure is, half the number of reporters we did 10, 12 years ago. And while you can do more with less, there is a declining efficiency there, and you wonder how many bells are out there, or maybe not how many bells are out there. It was pretty extreme. But how many other communities are being poorly run, and somebody needs to talk about -- bring it home. The Copley Washington bureau that led the bring down of representative Randall duke Cunningham, our Rancho Santa Fe, now our Arizona federal prison, no longer exists. It's gone. Disbanded even before the paper was sold. So you have to worry about that. We have abandoned a number of -- what they all partial run editions in various places that used to day to day to day to at a look at Orange County and San Diego County and Ventura county and such. Economically unsustainable. So while the bell coverage was fabulous and my good colleagues deserved every plodit we can give them, the long term look at how much we can do, both LA Times and others, is not an encouraging one.

ST. JOHN: J. W?

AUGUST: Well, I did want to bring to everybody's attention, we have our own little problems in our city, we have had in the past, a lot of them didn't go anywhere, investigation and such. But it's odd, the timing that that thigh get the Pulitzer, and just yesterday, the federal government asked the Court to withdraw the bail for Ralph Enzunza, which is the one case that seemed to holdup in our corruption charges down here involving -- that was stripper gate, not the pension plan.

ST. JOHN: Isn't it amazing, it's been what? Six years since that case --

AUGUST: And he's still walking around. And they're arguing, hey, wait until the supreme court hears this. But the feds asked yesterday, hey, no more bail, Ralph goes to jail.

ST. JOHN: And was that a story that the media dug up or -- law enforcement.

AUGUST: No, that was the FBI hit city hall and everybody heard about it within 30 minutes and it just all unravelled from then. Some of the players went to prison, aren't in prison now, but the politicals have pretty much walked except for Ralph.

ST. JOHN: Okay. We we've got to take a break here, we've got a caller on the line, but we'll get to her right after the break. 1-888-895-5727 is the number. Stay with us on the Editors Roundtable here on KPBS.

ST. JOHN: And you're pack at the Editors Roundtable here on KPBS. And our editors it, Tony Perry, Jim waters, and J. W. August. We have a caller on the line who I believe is responding to the discussion we were having before about public employees' salaries in relation to the LA Times investigative series on the Bell city salaries. And Diane issue you're calling from Cardiff. Thanks for joining the editors, go ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, good morning. I think it's very unfair and actually misrepresenting to lump all public employees together, and I say that because I worked for a city in Riverside County where the administrative people, the city managers and department heads received one level of benefits, so you know, lifetime medical and those kinds of things, whereas the trash truck drivers and the guys shovelling asphalt didn't get anywhere -- weren't even able to get benefits like that. So in a time when public sector employees are so being pointed at, like Carl DeMaio trying to compare a private ambulance paramedic with a firefighter, I think it's important to realize that they're two totally -- can be very separate benefit packages depending on where you are in the city.

ST. JOHN: Well, thank enforce that comment, Diane. J. W. Do you get the feeling that perhaps the public is painting public employees as rather --

AUGUST: Yes they, and it is unfair. But it also depends on not only their position in the government, that particular government, but which government you're talking about, whether you're talking about the county, the city, which agencies. It varies all across our community, Riverside, across the state.

ST. JOHN: This is just a very alive debate at the city right now, isn't it? Whether the private sector could be doing the job for less, and that means paying people less. So that is, as a society, what we have to decide, is that what we want? Is to have sort of our salaries being brought down to the lowest common denominator? We have a call here from Veronica in Ramona who would like to make a point. Thank you for joining the editors. Veronica, go ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: Yes, my call was about the provost, and the chancellor of California, I know that the [CHECK AUDIO] making over $400,000, they get housing they get transportation, they get free bees, in the meantime, they are [CHECK AUDIO] and they are carrying the salaries of the lower paid employees. It's totally unfair of it's ridiculous, some of them are making as much as president of the United States , and first of all, this is an organization that is supposed to be for the community of they are not for the community. They are for their own interests.

ST. JOHN: Veronica, thank you for that. Any comments on this? This is part of I think a feeling in the nation at the moment, a sort of worry about the growing disparity of people on the top and the bottom.

PERRY: I've seen concern about these chancellors and things, and I don't know what to do about these sort of one off positions. Should a chancellor at the university of San Diego make more or less than a poor hitting short stop for the Padres? What's it take to hire and keep a person to do that very difficult job? So I think it's harder to pull in these specific jobs and say that's too much or too little. I think the bottom line though, despite the fact that yes, there are different packages for rank and file and upper level people, I think the bottom line though, I think the public has learned something and they're resentful as hell about it, and that is that in this bad economy, public employment is saver, you have greater seniority rights, you have rights if somebody goes to take it in for you, you get a pension, you get medical care, you get all sorts of things that for the rank and file, not for the execs, but for the rank and file, and most of our private industries are long gone, I think it will only be a generation, and maybe even less, when you look in your funk and wagnles under pension, it'll say something paid to public employees. And it'll simply be gone. And the public has caught onto that and resents it. If pensions were the norm if they ever were in private industry, I think the resentment would be much less.

ST. JOHN: J. W.

AUGUST: Plus they have a job for life.

PERRY: They have seniority rights, which don't exist.

AUGUST: It's not a job for life. It's not like Toyota 20 years ago. It's not a job for life.

ST. JOHN: Is that a bad thing? Is that a reason to --

AUGUST: Maybe I'm jealous. I could be jealous. I would like --

PERRY: Oh, I think we're all jealous. Or we're stupid.

ST. JOHN: All right, on that note.

PERRY: But the question Sis jealousy a good motive for pushing a public policy?

AUGUST: Yeah.

ST. JOHN: Good question. Well, let's leave this underlying discomfort that I think is very much surfacing at this poor economic time, and move onto this next topic that we're tackling this morning.

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