Yesterday gave us all a cause for celebration. The Los Angeles County District Attorney brought accountability to the city of Bell, a low-income enclave in the eastern side of LA, as eight city officials got arrested for corruption. This comes after the LA Times exposed the enormous salaries that these civil servants carved out for themselves in a city where the average household income is below $30,000 per year — a scandal that had Bell residents in the streets demanding justice. Justice may soon come:
At least eight city of Bell officials were arrested Tuesday morning, a source said, as L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley prepared to announce criminal charges in the municipal salary scandal.
[Updated at 10 a.m.: Former Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo, whose high salary sparked the outrage that led to the investigations of the city,was among those arrested in the sweep. No details have been released, but a source not authorized to speak publicly about the case said that Rizzo; former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia; Mayor Oscar Hernandez; Councilmembers Luis Artiga, Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal; and former Councilmembers George Cole and Victor Bello were among those arrested.
[Updated at 11:22 p.m.: Cooley filed charges against eight Bell officials Tuesday, alleging that they misappropriated $5.5 million in public funds. Rizzo has been charged with 53 counts of misappropriation of public funds and conflict of interest.
Among those arrested were former city administrator Robert Rizzo, former assistant city manager Angela Spaccia, Mayor Oscar Hernandez, councilmembers George Mirabal, Teresa Jacobo, Luis Artiga and former councilmembers George Cole and Victor Bello.
“This is corruption on steroids,” Cooley said.]
A funny thing happened between the rather spectacular arrests — one house had to be entered by battering ram — and the media reports that followed. Despite the political implications of the story, a key piece of information got left out of the information that voters received, as Newsbusters discovered:
Today, eight city council members were arrested in Bell, California for what Los Angeles County District Attorney labeled “corruption on steroids.” Thus far, every major news outlet that has reported on the story has omitted the fact that all eight individuals arrested are Democrats.
These glaring omissions come only weeks after NewsBusters reported that of the 351 stories on the then-brewing controversy, 350 had omitted party affiliations, and one had mentioned they were Democrats only in apologizing for not doing so sooner.
In Los Angeles, the news may have been taken for granted. Democrats have long controlled city positions in the region, and Angelenos probably assumed that the culprits were Democrats. But this seems like a significant part of the story, not because all corruption gets committed by Democrats (as Republicans well know), but because when Republicans commit corruption, it is always treated like a significant part of the story. In those cases, party affiliation gets prominent mention, while in Bell, somehow the bell rings silently.
Even apart from that, though, this case has been one of the worst corruption scandals in my memory, a truly shocking episode even for those of us who have built up a healthy skepticism about power. Having lived in Southern California for much of my life, I know Bell and what kind of hard-working, struggling people live there. These people took money from the poor to enrich themselves, even without the slush-fund allegations, by granting themselves obscene salaries while their citizens scraped for food money. These former hotshots should count themselves lucky to be living in these times, and not a century earlier when tar and feathers had yet to go out of fashion.
Update: The LA Times had already responded to this criticism from their readers:
The answer is that these are nonpartisan positions. Those arrested Tuesday were the mayor, three council members, two former council members, the former city manager and the assistant city manager. The mayor and council members are elected in nonpartisan elections. And the city manager and assistant city manager are not even elected officials.
Council members Teresa Jacobo and Luis Artiga, who were arrested Tuesday, were up for election in 2009. The sample ballot from that election is on the Bell city clerk’s website. No political party is listed for any City Council candidate.
I’m not going to bash the Times too much for this; if it wasn’t for their reporting in the first place, we’d still not know that these people were living large on the backs of the poor and working-class families in Bell. They deserve a lot of credit for whatever justice Bell residents find. However, it seems to me that the Times (and everyone else) reported a lot of information about these defendants that wasn’t found on ballots, and that omitting a common thread among them seems rather suspicious. This appears to be a conspiracy, so why would the media ignore that common thread in its reporting?