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The Bell Tolls: Big-Time Corruption In A Small Town

Associated Press/Reed Saxon

Angry residents called for city officials in Bell, Calif. to resign following the corruption scandal.

Bell, Calif., is one of the smallest and poorest cities in Los Angeles County, but until the beginning of the decade, its top city administrator had a pay and benefits package worth $1.5 million a year.

In the largely immigrant city where few residents speak English, the municipal government stopped serving the people and started helping itself in a case of “corruption on steroids,” according to the Los Angeles County district attorney.

Widespread abuse included everything from multimillion-dollar capital projects that were funded but never built to shakedowns of business owners and people who had their cars towed. The result: A poor community that got poorer while city bureaucrats enriched themselves.

“Everybody was involved and complicit,” said Thom Reilly, a professor at Arizona State University and author of the new book “The Failure of Governance in Bell, California: Big-Time Corruption in a Small Town.”

Reilly said there were many factors that contributed to the city officials involved being able to get away with corruption for a long time, including disengaged voters, no media coverage or oversight and willingness of people who should have found the problems to look away.

"Everyone who could have done something was either looking the other way or personally benefiting financially," he said. 

While serving as Clark County manager, Reilly had a chance to see big-time corruption in a big town.

During his tenure three county commissioners were convicted and one took a plea deal for taking illegal payments from a strip club owner in the Operation G-Sting scandal.

"And although, it was a clear betrayal of public trust," Reilly said, "The corruption really involved relatively few individuals and despite the scandalous details that came out during the trial, it was some what unremarkable compared with what occurred in Bell."

Reilly speaks about his new book and the culture of corruption in Bell, Calif., Thursday during a 6 p.m. lecture at the Historic Fifth Street School, 401 S. Fourth St., in downtown Las Vegas. The event is sponsored by UNLV’s Greenspun College of Urban Affairs and its Nonprofit, Community, and Leadership Initiative.


Thom Reilly, professor, author and former Clark County manager

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