Los Angeles Times reporter Jeff Gottlieb shared the story of the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service that he won with his colleague Ruben Vives for their investigation of city officials in Bell, a Los Angeles suburb. The meeting, arranged by the Madison Pro Chapter of SPJ, was at the Paul Bunyan Room at the UW-Memorial Union.
Gottlieb and Vives actually started out looking into the neighboring suburb of Maywood, which had huge budget problems. But when they asked authorities if they were investigating Maywood they said no. For some reason he asked, “What about Bell?” And they said yes.
When they made an open records request to the Bell City Clerk, they were stonewalled. “It was clear from talking with people that something was wrong at Bell,” he said.
They kept pressing and ultimately found themselves in a meeting with city officials at a nearby park. When Gottlieb asked City Administrator Robert Rizzo his annual salary, Rizzo responded, “700,000 dollars.” Later, looking through Rizzo’s contract that was among the documents brought to the meeting, Gottlieb calculated that Rizzo’s annual take was more like $1.5 million.
“For the next year this was all I did,” Gottlieb said. “We’ve written more than 100 stories.” He was surprised that no other media picked up the investigation, but rather followed the Times lead on the story. He was also surprised that he and Ruben became heroes to the citizens of Bell.
At the next city council meeting following the breaking of the story, the hundreds of people who had gathered parted to let him through, patted him on the back, and asked for his autograph. “Usually as a reporter people are saying what a jerk you are,” he reflected.
Eight people are now facing charges, following the Bell investigation. There have been a number of reforms instituted. For instance, the State Comptroller now puts salaries of public officials on a website. “It’s not illegal to make too much money, but it is illegal the way Rizzo did it,” Gottlieb said.
“This is easily the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” Gottlieb concluded. “We’d go out and do a story and come back with three more. I’ve never had a story like this. I wonder, what else have we missed?”
The audio from this meeting is available here, Jeff Gottlieb is introduced by Terry Shelton.