Sunday, February 26, 2012


A University of Illinois study finds that we're the second most corrupt region in the U.S., due to an oversized helping of election crimes, conflicts of interest and other dirty deeds.

Steve Lopez, LA Times columnist |

February 26, 2012  ::  Panning for gold in the local cesspool is always lucrative, but it's been one fat nugget after another lately.

We've got Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa marketing himself for his next job before he finishes this one; City Atty. Carmen Trutanich insisting he's not the liar he appears to be; auto painters at the DWP making $109,192 a year while the agency guns for a rate hike; and Los Angeles County Assessor John Noguez under investigation for an alleged scandal involving tax breaks for clients represented by his friend.

And now comes a study revealing that Greater Los Angeles is the second most corrupt metro region in the United States.

We cannot accept this, folks. With just a little more effort, I think we can knock Chicago off the top of the leader board.

In the "most corrupt" study, by University of Illinois professor Dick Simpson and his colleagues, our No. 2 ranking has a lot to do with the huge population of the area they analyzed, which includes not just Los Angeles County, but also Riverside, Orange, Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and San Bernardino counties. In per capita rankings, we fall back to ninth place. But still, we managed to rack up an impressive 1,275 federal convictions since 1976 (to Chicago's 1,531) for extortion, bribery, conflicts of interest and election crimes involving elected officials, government workers and the private citizens with whom they did their dirty deeds.

And those numbers don't include charges like the Los Angeles County district attorney's pending cases against the city of Bell rascals who got hauled away in handcuffs. In Illinois, the state doesn't prosecute public corruption, only the feds do. So we may actually have Chicago beat.

Why so many scoundrels here?

California historian Kevin Starr says there's a long history of corruption here, dating to the noir era and even earlier. And he says the roots of organized crime in the region are deep. But I think a better explanation for our current rot is that if you're a scheming public official in Los Angeles, stealing everything that isn't nailed to the wall is a breeze. Too many people aren't paying attention and can't be bothered to vote, which allows sleazy opportunists to easily build fiefdoms. And journalists can't bag every skunk, no matter how much we'd like to.

I didn't intend that as a segue to the Noguez story, but it works. The assessor has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing as county investigators snoop into his activities. But as Times scribes Ruben Vives and Jack Dolan have reported, a Ferrari-driving tax agent friend of Noguez, Ramin Salari, represented clients who got their property assessments reduced at great tax savings to them. Salari then allegedly asked clients to contribute to Noguez when he was running for assessor.

Whatever happens, the biggest crime in government and politics is what's legal rather than illegal. Three years ago, I advised readers to "run, don't walk," to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and apply for any job they had. Secretaries, custodians, gardeners and everyone else made far more than their counterparts at City Hall. Why? Because the politicians who approved those salaries wouldn't think of standing up to union boss Brian D'Arcy and cutting off the campaign cash spigot.

So now Bloomberg News reports that DWP employees make 40% more than their counterparts in other areas of city government.

More interesting, perhaps, is the fact that unanimous approval of the current contract came in 2009, when Villaraigosa controlled the DWP board, and the City Council voted unanimously to approve the contract even as the city budget hole was becoming a canyon. Voting yes were council members Jan Perry and Eric Garcetti, both of whom are running for mayor, and Dennis Zine, who is running for city controller.

So keep that in mind as you follow the coming news of rate hikes, and as our termed-out mayor leaves the mess to someone else as he prepares to move on.

"Los Angeles Mayor Sets Sights on a Bigger Stage," said a New York Times headline last week, and the story noted that he's not only heading the U.S. Conference of Mayors, but has been named by President Obama as head of the Democratic National Convention to be held in Charlotte, N.C.

Now look, I'm not one of the provincial squawkers who believe the mayor of a great international city should never go on overseas trade missions or to Washington, D.C., to claim a piece of the pie. Played right, looking beyond the city limits can serve our interests.

But with all he's left undone at home, is this really a good time for Villaraigosa to be running off to play at national politics?

Not to worry, Villaraigosa spokeswoman Sarah Sheahan told me, saying he's focused on schools, job creation and transit projects.

Yeah, but in Charlotte, or here?

Another local hero looking for a bigger stage is City Atty. Carmen "Nuch" Trutanich. As a candidate for his current job, Trutanich promised to complete two full terms before running for another office. He even signed a pledge that if he violated the promise, he'd donate $100,000 to L.A.'s Best, an after-school program, and take out a newspaper ad that says "I AM A LIAR."

Now he's running for district attorney.

I check the ads every day and all I see is Donald T. Sterling. I can't give Trutanich the $100,000, but I did offer to pay for an ad that all of Los Angeles can see.

For $1,500, Van Wagner Outdoor Advertising can get me up in the air for two hours, dragging a sign that says, "NUCH: I AM A LIAR."

"A lot of things have changed," Trutanich protested when I asked if he wanted to fly with me.

Like what?

D.A. Steve Cooley decided to leave office, Nuch said, and he's the man best qualified to replace him.

A guy who lied, and broke the hearts of kids in an after-school program, is qualified to be the top law enforcer in the county?

I'm going to head over to L.A.'s Best to see what it feels like to get stiffed by a politician. But I may go ahead with the aerial ad too.

"I'll salute you," said Trutanich.

With one finger, I presume.

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