The L.A. Times is celebrating its well deserved Pulitzer Prize for uncovering the scandal in the City of Bell.
But amid the accolades, it's worth taking a moment to recognize someone without whom the scandal would not have been uncovered: the courageous and (allegedly) corrupt councilman, Victor Bello.
As California Watch detailed last fall, it was Bello's letters to the District Attorney's office in 2009 that sparked the investigation. Long before the scandal broke into public view, Bello wrote that the city had been “victimized by mismanagement, illegal activity and corruption.”
And it was a tip from the D.A.'s office that led the Times to break the Bell story. No Bello, no Bell scandal. And probably, no Pulitzer. The biggest irony of all is that so far no one has served more time in jail for the Bell scandal than Victor Bello.
Bello made $100,000 as a member of the Bell City Council. After resigning in 2009, he continued to make the same amount as director of a food bank.
According to the criminal complaint, he disclosed his salary to a D.A. investigator in March 2010. That act of integrity or foolishness — take your pick — wound up getting him charged with 16 counts of misappropriation of public funds.
Bello was a relatively minor figure compared to those he was blowing the whistle on, including City Manager Robert Rizzo and others. But he spent more time in jail than anybody else because he couldn't make his $190,000 bail. After five months behind bars, his bail was lowered and he was released.
So why did he do it?
In his first letter to the D.A.'s office, he said, “I am a proud Cuban American. I have witnessed, first hand, the ravages of a corrupt and totalitarian government.” He closed with a plea for justice: “I am pleading for help, for my city, our community.”
Bello's letters were ghost-written by James Corcoran, a police sergeant who had been trying without success to get the D.A.'s attention about corruption in Bell. Corcoran was told his allegations would have more weight if he got an elected official to make a formal complaint. So he went to Bello, who agreed to help.
“He wanted to be a good citizen and representative on the city council,” Bello's attorney, Stanley Friedman, told California Watch.
As whistleblowers go, Corcoran is less morally problematic than Bello, which may explain why Corcoran got the movie deal. But both deserve a nod for their roles in bringing down Bell's cadre of corruption.