Bell: The Political Gift That Keeps on Giving

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Public corruption scandals are, first and foremost, tragic sagas for the citizens who feel they've been hoodwinked. They also often leave a residual stain on thousands of good public servants who do their jobs without fanfare or fraud.

But these scandals also seem to offer endless opportunities for politicians to get some air time and newsprint showing that they're tough as nails when it comes to rooting out wrongdoing on the taxpayer's dime. And when it happens in the middle of an election season... you've got a veritable bonanza of political PR opportunities.

The still unfolding scandal in the small Los Angeles County community of Bell is making national headlines, and rightly so, thanks to some award-worthy reporting by the Los Angeles Times. It also continues to play out just weeks from the November 2 general election, a political gift for two men in particular: Steve Cooley and Jerry Brown.

Photo: Getty Images

First Cooley, the veteran LA district attorney who's also the Republican nominee for attorney general. Cooley is well known in his native southland but not so familiar to millions of other Californians. The media attention allows him some exposure on the evening news up and down the state, just as voters are starting to pay attention to the upcoming election.

Cooley's office is leading the charge, and on Tuesday ordered the arrest of eight current and former Bell officials. In the process, the DA managed to get off the sound bite heard 'round the country: "This, needless to say, is corruption on steroids."

The GOP nominee faces a tough battle for the job of attorney general against Democrat Kamala Harris, the sitting district attorney in San Francisco. Harris has sought to use the Bell scandal to her own advantage, too, with her campaign recently suggesting that Cooley (whose office had been looking at allegations about Bell's operations for a while) should have acted sooner.

Meantime, the guy whose job both Harris and Cooley want is also getting PR mileage out of the scandal. Jerry Brown's role as state attorney general doesn't give him quite as good a platform as Cooley on bringing any wrongdoers to justice, but it has allowed Brown several opportunities to shine in the spotlight.

Photo: Getty Images

Last week, Brown filed suit to recover money paid as salary to Bell officials, and announced he's widening his examination of payment to officials outside of Bell. Apparently first on his list: the nearby city of Vernon.

And as in the AG's race to replace Brown, his gubernatorial rival is also weighing in. Republican Meg Whitman's campaign asserted that the Democrat's call for government sunshine stands in contrast to shadowy allegations of city officials pay and perks while Brown was mayor of Oakland.

And as they say in TV infomercials: but wait, there's more!

The Bell controversy is allowing the state's chief financial officer to make a splash, too. Just this morning, Controller John Chiang announced that the findings of his initial audit of Bell's finances found mismanaged public funds at every turn. Not to be outdone by LA's Cooley, the Democratic controller's press release included its own memorable quip: "Our audit found the city had almost no accounting controls – no checks or balances – and the General Fund was run like a petty cash drawer."

And that won't be the end of today's news on the subject. This afternoon, a joint legislative hearing at the Capitol will discuss the lack of transparency when it comes to salaries and compensation for local officials. Reporters were emailed a list compiled by legislative staffers of compensation for both mayors across the state (PDF) as well as compensation of city managers (PDF); note that these numbers, according to staff, include health benefits and retirement contributions. The hearing comes on the heels of a package of bills -- some of which passed out of the Legislature -- were introduced in Sacramento last month in response to what happened in Bell.

Heck, the scandal has even come up in the course of daily news on the now 83 day long impasse over a new state budget. "People should start asking themselves, what are their city officials and what are their county officials getting paid?" said Governor Schwarzenegger in a July discussion about the budget in San Diego. He's used the scandal, too, as another reason to reform the pension system for public employees -- a key demand of Schwarzenegger in this budget impasse. And last month, a spokesperson for the governor went so far as to link ex-Bell officials to Democratic legislative leaders, though no one's said anything like that since.

These will be far from the last times you hear "what happened in Bell" being lamented and labored over on the campaign trail this fall. The real question is whether, after all of the PR push subsides, the plight of the tiny city's taxpayers leads to systemic -- and substantive-- change.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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