Wringing Bell
From the Sep. 20, 2010, issue of NR.


Daniel Foster

As I’m tallying the numbers in my notebook, a well-regarded senior reporter from the Times walks in, oxford shirt tucked into Levis, sunglasses perched on forehead, thumbs and eyes locked on cellphone. I introduce myself and we exchange professional pleasantries. Turns out he’s been waiting for weeks to see the very same meeting minutes.

Ah, well, when you’re done, mind if I have a crack?

Sure, he says, except that he isn’t sure when his turn will come. There are people ahead of him who have already put in requests.

Just then, Ms. Prado emerges from the “EMPLOYEES ONLY” room with Carrillo, the interim city manager, in tow. The Times reporter calls after Prado and I see an opening to float my One Rizzo, Divisible theory.

Carrillo is clearly a man who hasn’t had as much sleep as he’d like in the last few weeks. He listens to my theory, smiles, and shakes his head.

“I can’t tell you definitively whether any of that is true until I’ve finished my audit,” he says, pointing at the lime-green, ring-bound budget. “But yes, it certainly looks like this money was hiding in plain sight.”

At this point I notice a large bronze bust of John F. Kennedy set in one corner of the foyer, and it occurs to me, for the first time since I’ve been here, that all five members of the Bell city council are Democrats. Considering the environs, this is so obvious as to be banal; besides, they say greed knows no party.

But something about Kennedy, about the bust, is bugging me.

In the weeks following my visit, State Controller Chiang would announce a spate of new transparency initiatives, attorney general Jerry Brown would continue to beat the subpoena drum, and the state legislature would consider a number of remedies to ensure that there’d never be another Bell.

Meanwhile, the L.A. district attorney’s office would expand its investigation to include allegations of voter fraud — it turns out that half of the votes cast in that 2005 referendum giving Bell pols carte blanche to raise their salaries were absentee ballots of dubious provenance — and the Bell Association to Stop the Abuse, a nascent group of angry citizens whose acronym, BASTA, means “Enough” in Spanish, would begin collecting the signatures needed to set in motion the recall of the mayor and three councilmen.

But it took, among other things, years of increasingly brazen and inept corruption, the stress of a recession and a statewide fiscal crisis, at least one anonymous tip, plenty of dogged reporting, and national publicity for the citizenry of Bell to realize when basta was indeed basta.Otherwise the Big Con might still be humming along smoothly, right under their noses.

And then I realize what it is that bothers me about the Kennedy bust. It’s the inscription below, in gold lettering, of Kennedy’s rallying cry.

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

— Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online. This article originally appeared in our September 20, 2010, issue.