When No One Was Looking: Cudahy, Vernon, Santa Fe Springs, Bell

Sleep of Reason
Sleep of Reason | Photo: Alex Clark | Flickr: Creative Commons License

In the past 30 years -- and this is not a comprehensive list -- city officials in La Puente, Monterey Park, Pico Rivera, Rosemead, Compton, and Temple City were charged with corruption. A South Gate city treasurer was found to have embezzled $20 million. A Lynwood mayor pocketed $6 million in kickbacks. City council members in Vernon continued a regime of startling malfeasance. City officials in Huntington Park went through several rounds of investigations, as did those in Hawthorne, Montebello, and Irwindale. Administrators in Bell undertook so brazen a scheme of looting that District Attorney Steve Cooley called it "corruption on steroids."

In recent days, hardly hours apart, two city council members from Cudahy were arrested. A Santa Fe Springs councilman pleaded guilty to taking bribes. The head of the association of city governments in the San Gabriel Valley was accused of using his position to enrich a consulting company he owns. The city prosecutor in Whittier was under investigation by the FBI for his involvement in the Cudahy cases.

Since 2001, the Public Integrity unit of the District Attorney's office, as reported in the Los Angeles Times, has received 3,680 complaints of wrongdoing involving public officials. Of those, 313 resulted in formal charges. Since early 2011, the FBI has been investigating corrupt practices in Cudahy, Santa Fe Springs, Whittier, and other cities.

In telling this sorry story, the news media have tended to focus on a subset of cities -- describing them as small, poor, mostly immigrant, overwhelmingly Latino, and where the residents are "hardworking" but disengaged from civic life. The story, as it too often is, has been neatly dislocated into the anonymous "elsewhere" of Los Angeles County. The story also has been turned into a tightly rolled up paradox in which the people of this "elsewhere" are both the agents and the victims of the malign governance under which they live.

That may not be entirely true. For the past 30 years, the amount and the depth of the news media coverage of smaller and middle-size cities in Los Angeles County have declined. The big papers have withered; the little weekly papers are gone. Over the past 30 years, the level of voter participation in cities with little news coverage has drifted lower and lower. Turnouts of less than 10 percent of registered voters are not uncommon.

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There is some correlation there, possibly of more significance than how brown the voters are.

In the mythology of the news business, the purpose of a paper is to deliver maximally the lived experience of a city to readers whose imaginations would be engaged or entertained or inflamed or consoled by what they read. In actuality, however, the news in the paper is/was filler to keep the advertisements from crowding together. Nothing more, although even that was sufficient to sustain, in many places and for many decades, a daily conversation about the purposes of those places.

When newspapers were owned by cranky individualists, at least they had a point of view (if not much else). When newspapers were riding high on their monopolies (in the 1970s and 1980s), at least they reached for breadth, although the Los Angeles Times, with its world spanning bureaus, never figured out how to cover the cities in Los Angeles County. Since then, stripped of a point of view and no longer monopolies, newspapers have lost their way, particularly their way of looking at the places to which they find themselves now unhappily tethered.

Over the past 30 years, as cities in Los Angeles County attempted to deal with enormous demographic and economic changes, official corruption has grown into a set of habits sheltered in the twilight of media and voter attention. Those habits aren't limited geographically, aren't limited to the elsewhere of the county's southeastern edge (with the implication that it arises from the "otherness" of those who live there). They are the habits of official corruption that naturally and inevitably arise everywhere when no one is looking.

*Updated 07/03/2012: Wait a minute, say journalists here and here, we have covered these arrests, indictments, plea deals, and investigations into official corruption.

They're right. My criticism of the press and its failures to pay attention is sweeping.

Mostly, news accounts of wrongdoing by public officials come after the fact, as the result of a press conference convened by the District Attorney or a federal prosecutor. (The Bell scandal is a notable exception. That case was broken by two amazed L.A. Times reporters.) And while coverage of arrests and indictments does have educational value, that's not enough to create good governance.

An ethical and moral civic culture requires sustained, knowledgeable, intelligent reporting that illuminates both the personalities and the processes that shape how governments work and why decisions are made. So that voters know about the questionable deal, the cozy relationship, the ducking of a hard question, the murky decision, the clueless councilmember before the FBI or the DA calls the press conference.

Mostly, that kind of reporting has evaporated.

In the absence of that kind of attention, civic life reverts, and the corruptors flourish.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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