Political Notebook

Dan Walters: A sleazy tradition continues in L.A.County

The way Los Angeles County evolved – one large city surrounded by dozens of relatively tiny municipalities and obscure special districts – made it ripe for official malfeasance.

Even the smallest governments have elected boards, administrative superstructures and – most importantly – the power to impose taxes, borrow money and hand out lucrative contracts and franchises to well-connected insiders.

Typically, turnout for their elections is scant, often only single-digit percentages of potential voters, so it’s easy for those with a larcenous bent to get elected, help themselves to juicy benefits and make deals with others.

Five years ago, the outside world got a peek into what had become a pattern of corrupt conduct in Los Angeles’ thicket of small local governments. The Los Angeles Times published a series of articles – which later captured a Pulitzer Prize – detailing how the tiny city of Bell was being looted.

A city administrator, with the connivance of the City Council, pocketed an $800,000 salary and hundreds of thousands more in perks. Eventually he and seven other city officials who also had claimed generous dollops of money were indicted.

Bell, however, is not an isolated case.

Vernon, an “industrial city” with almost no residents and controlled by a small cabal of insiders who enriched themselves, also became infamous – so much so that an effort was mounted in the Legislature to abolish its municipal status. Vernon, with a slight name change, became the focal point of a television miniseries about sleaze, “True Detective.”

And so it has gone, one revelation after another about endemic sleaziness in Los Angeles County’s local governments.

Not all of them are cities. Take, for example, the Central Basin Municipal Water District, which distributes water in the San Gabriel Valley – a region that seems to have a particular penchant for funny business.

The district has been a poster child for insider dealing, particularly involving members of the Calderon family.

Former Assemblyman Tom Calderon, D-Montebello, had a $12,000-a-month consulting contract with Central Basin until February 2013. He now faces money-laundering charges while his brother, Ron, a former state senator from Montebello, faces bribery charges in a massive federal corruption case.

On Thursday, State Auditor Elaine Howle released a lengthy report on Central Basin, castigating its board for oversight and financial failures.

They include shifting millions of dollars into a shadowy legal trust fund, from which even more obscure payments were made, handing out contracts without competitive bidding, writing checks that could be considered gifts of public funds, and giving part-time board members generous health insurance and travel benefits.

Central Basin, Howle concluded, “could benefit from a different governance structure.”

That’s a mild statement, but one that could be applied to dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of local government entities in Los Angeles County.