Ringing the Bell  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   March & april 2011

Ringing the Bell   

An investigation of city corruption wins a prestigious prize for two Los Angeles Times reporters. Posted: Thurs, March 10, 2011

By Jeffrey Benzing
Jeffrey Benzing (jbenzing@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     


The impact? A recall election. Eight arrests. Four resignations. Overhauled government -- potentially -- and a city manager to face trial for more than 50 felony counts of misappropriation of public funds, conflict of interest and falsification of documents.

That's what put Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives of the Los Angeles Times ahead of more than 70 entries as they won the Selden Ring Award for their investigation of municipal corruption in the Los Angeles County city of Bell.

"We would go do a story and literally come back with three more," Gottlieb says. "It was the damndest thing I ever came across."

The reporters learned Monday that they had won the $35,000 prize, awarded yearly since 1990 by the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.

"The impact in Bell was really visceral and immediate," says Melanie Sill, lead judge of the contest and editor and senior vice president of the Sacramento Bee. "It kind of created a national focus on compensation of public officials."

It started with rumors last summer of overpaid city officials in the relatively poor, relatively small municipality southeast of Los Angeles -- with some council members and city staff pulling salaries well into six figures. Beat reporters Vives and Gottlieb had been doing reporting on the nearby city of Maywood, which had just fired its entire city staff.

The reporters called the district attorney's office to ask if it was investigating Maywood. It wasn't. Then they asked about Bell, which had been contracted to run Maywood and its police department, and heard about the high salaries.

They visited Bell City Hall and asked for the minutes of meetings and salary information. They were told to wait -- for 10 days.

"Every day I was calling the city clerk, and she said, 'They're not ready, it'll be ready at the end of 10 days,' " Gottlieb says. "Every day I was telling her if we didn't get the records, we were going to turn around and sue them and get the judge to have them pay our legal fees."

Then they got a call saying that Robert Rizzo, Bell's city manager, wanted to meet. It turned out to be Rizzo and ten others, as Gottlieb recalls, including the city's police chief (who has since resigned) and two lawyers, in a meeting room at a city park.

Rizzo had binders full of documents, but Gottlieb says he and Vives wanted to talk now, read later.

They asked Rizzo how much he made -- expecting a high number, but not so high as the answer they got.

Gottlieb recalls: "He kind of coughed it out. He said, '$700,000.'

"I said, 'Excuse me?'

"He said, '$700,000.'

"Ruben, who's sitting next to me, goes, 'Jesus Christ.' "

But that number actually was a little low. After adding up Rizzo's contracts, Gottlieb and Vives came up with a total of $787,637 -- a number they later found jumps to $1.5 million when other benefits are included. Rizzo and seven others now face trial for corruption and misappropriation of $5.5 million in public funds.

Gottlieb says he called Rizzo to confirm his math.

"He said, 'Well I think you're a little high,' " Gottlieb recalls. "I said to Ruben, 'I'm willing to write that correction.' "

The first meeting with Rizzo had been on Friday, July 9, and the first story ran the following Thursday.

Both reporters, along with several other reporters and editors at the Times, continue to cover the investigation -- and it's been an eat-and-sleep story, something that's already won them a George Polk Award and honors from the American Society of News Editors.

As time and money shrink for investigative projects, Geneva Overholser, director of the USC Annenberg journalism school, says rewarding good work remains crucially important.

"We know that investigative reporting has suffered huge losses," Overholser says. "Fortunately, I think the best of our newspapers are realizing that they and they alone are the ones that can do this."

A decade ago, the contest had over a hundred entries, and Overholser says she's seen a decline in entries from regional papers -- either because they don't have resources for investigative work, or because they aren't taking time to enter in contests.

"There were many pretty notable regional newspapers that didn't have entries. That was striking," says David Boardman, contest judge and executive editor and senior vice president of the Seattle Times.

Boardman, who applauded the Bell story for its impact locally and nationally, says he first noticed a dip in investigative reporting around 2008 as many newspapers, large and small, cut staff.

"I think most publications are getting their equilibrium with smaller staffs and recognizing that this is one of the most important things that we do," Boardman says.

Finalists for the 2011 Selden Ring Award, which is judged primarily on the impact of the stories, were the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Bloomberg News, all outfits with national audiences.

The Selden Ring Award is not a permanent prize. It's given year to year, and its original patron and namesake, a Los Angeles apartment developer, died in 1992. His son, Doug Ring, died in 2009, and now Doug Ring's widow, Cindy Miscikowski, a former Los Angeles city councilwoman, says she hopes the award eventually can be made permanent.

And even if money is short for investigations in many newsrooms, Gottlieb says reporters should always look for salary information for officials they cover -- and do the footwork to put the pieces together.

"If someone had told me that Bob Rizzo was an alien from Saturn sent to loot the city of Bell, I think I'd have to check it out," Gottlieb says. "Nothing is too much."

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