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The Failure of Governance in Bell, California

Big-Time Corruption in a Small Town

Thom Reilly

“How could this have happened?” The question still lingers among officials and residents of the small southern California town of Bell. Corruption is hardly an isolated challenge to the governance of America’s cities. But following decades of benign obscurity, Bell witnessed the emergence of a truly astonishing level of public wrongdoing—a level succinctly described by Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley as “corruption on steroids.”

Even discounting the enormous sums involved—the top administrator paid himself nearly $800,000 a year in a town with a $35,000 average income—this was no ordinary failure of governance. The picture that emerges from years of federal, state, and local investigations, trials, depositions, and media accounts is of an elaborate culture of corruption and deceit created and sustained by top city administrators, councilmembers, police officers, numerous municipal employees, and consultants.

The Failure of Governance in Bell California: Big-Time Corruption in a Small Town details how Bell was rendered vulnerable to such massive malfeasance by a disengaged public, lack of established ethical norms, absence of effective checks and balances, and minimal coverage by an overextended area news media. It is a grim and nearly unbelievable story.

Yet even these factors fail to fully explain how such large-scale corruption could have arisen. More specifically, how did it occur within a structure—the council-manager form of government—that had been deliberately designed to promote good governance? Why were so many officials and employees prepared to participate in or overlook the ongoing corruption? To what degree can theories of governance, such as contagion theory or the “rover bandit” theme, explain the success of such blatant wrongdoing?

The Failure of Governance, by Arizona State University Professor Thom Reilly—himself former county manager of Clark County, Nevada—pursues answers to these and related questions through an analysis of municipal operations that will afford the reader deeper insight into the inner workings of city governments—corrupt and otherwise. By considering factors arising from both theory and practice, Reilly makes clear, in other words, why the sad saga of Bell, California represents both a case study and a warning.
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Lexington Books
Pages: 260Size: 6 x 9
978-1-4985-1212-1 • Hardback • May 2016 • $90.00 • (£60.00)
978-1-4985-1213-8 • eBook • May 2016 • $85.00 • (£54.95)
Thom Reilly is director of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy and professor in the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University.
Dave J. Aleshire
Chapter 5. The Corruption Hearings with Gregory D. Coordes
with Gregory D. Coordes
Chapter 7. Postscript
Far beyond wildly unimaginable fiction, this reality-based book is an importantly great read on public affairs. It tells the story of a decade of Big Time Corruption in Bell, California: years of self-serving exercise of power shared among officials in deliberately flagrant violation of legal standards and other fundamentals of public service. Beyond that, Bell is also a sad case of sustained failure of professional, civic, legal, academic, and other institutions upon which society depends for responsible public affairs. These glaring failures were ignored until exposed by journalists of the Los Angeles Times. As a former professional manager of Clark County (Las Vegas), Nevada, and now a leading public-policy academician, Thom Reilly provides an in-depth analysis of the sordid details and broad schemes of this massive corruption. Beyond that, for quick study and enhanced understanding, he expertly frames Bell’s tragedy around four vital subjects of needed learning: political monopolies that escape election failures; fiscal systems that generate revenue extractions; geographic corruption contagion; and a lens of professional ethics.

Thom Reilly’s deeply informed analysis of The Failure of Governance in Bell, California, warrants study by civic leaders, political officials, professional local-government managers, and students who hope to enter these public-service roles. It provides swift and hopefully lasting learning about abhorrent practices of all-too-easy corruption, thereby elevating understanding of necessities of elevated aspirations and practices of responsible government and other public affairs.
Chester A. Newland, University of Southern California

Reilly’s excellent account of corruption in local government is written with the expertise of a scholar who is fluent in theory and the acumen of a practitioner who has witnessed such behavior up close and personal. This book, replete with scandalous details as well as insightful interpretations and suggestions for reform, will have broad appeal with the general public, for local administrators, and in the classroom.
Dina Titus, U.S Representative, 1st District of Nevada; University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Emeritus

Thom Reilly depicts the almost unbelievable levels of greed and corruption that brought an entire municipal government to its knees. His incisive narrative not only carefully details the many enabling conditions that allowed this brazen looting of a small, vulnerable community to occur, but also skillfully incorporates an analysis of cultural norms and governmental structures that historically have been designed to deter corruption. Virtually every page prompts substantive discussion topics for the reader. This is a must-read not only for students of government, administration, and public policy, but for every concerned citizen. The account of the systematic and unchallenged dismantling of checks and balances and external safeguards against graft serves as a cautionary tale to anyone who thinks it couldn’t happen in their community.
Kathryn Landreth, former United States Attorney for the District of Nevada