It matters that a cancer of corruption is eating away at the civic spirit of Los Angeles.
This cancer poses the possibility of a fate worse than death for a city of historically audacious ambition.
Indeed, the public corruption revealed by the ongoing probe of City Hall by agents of the FBI and IRS threatens to push LA off a legitimate claim to being a capital of the Pacific Rim and into a pool of mediocrity.
LA could end up just another outpost of the Sun Belt.
That’s a cruel prospect for a place that created itself out of chaparral country, midwifed Hollywood, invented the Jet Age, redefined the American Dream, and became a West Coast bookend to Ellis Island.
Yet that’s what corruption can make of once-dynamic places. Corruption creates a code of winks and nods for networks of the initiated who stand guard over established interests. It dulls blades of original thinking, grinding them into mere decorative swords for the satiated. It keeps the sharp edges of innovators and iconoclasts separated lest any collision set off the sparks of fresh ideas.
The cancer of corruption does all of that and more with an ultimate aim of building walls to ward off the new and unknown.
That’s a particular danger to LA, which has made the new and unknown its stock in trade since the Santa Fe Railway got to town.
Grubbier than Usual
The political corruption that’s being officially revealed by federal investigators is no surprise—the current crop of office holders in LA has generally been a grubbier-than-usual lot, consumed with the business of trading the public trust for personal gain.
The surprise has come from the rest of the civic structure of LA, which stands nearly silent as the U.S. Attorney’s office continues to make indictments public.
The silence has grown downright deafening as the roll of dishonor has lengthened, with a former member of the LA City Council, a “political fundraiser,” and a “real estate broker and development consultant” all having entered guilty pleas. Current City Councilmember Jose Huizar has been identified as a key figure of the probe by biographical circumstances laid out in the indictments. The same goes for Ray Chan, a former head of the city’s Department of Building and Safety, later promoted to top deputy for economic development by Mayor Eric Garcetti, whose office is now central to the investigation.
The city’s political class has buried its head deeper with every revelation.
Private Sector’s Empty Pulpit
A covey of callow elected officials is to be expected in this day and age.
It also should be expected that other civic institutions would step into the breach left in the wake of public corruption.
Cue the private sector?
Not so far.
There’s been hardly a word from any trade or professional group, business advocacy association, or individual proprietor, executive or company.
It’s clear that some small fraction of the community of business is neck-deep in the scandal—particularly in the real estate sector, which has traditionally played an outsized role in LA’s civic affairs.
That might explain the overall silence.
The community of business, in any case, seems set to ride the scandal out with mouths shut—no word from the LAEDC, VICA, CCA or any other members of the alphabet bunch that so gladly serve as boosters when the winds are favorable.
Low-Down on Higher Education
It’s true that businesses and the people who run them and the groups that represent them are under no obligation to publicly address the scandal. It might be a wise long-term play for the community of business to send some of its members forward to say something intelligent and get ahead of the mess, but that’s not required by law or custom.
There’s a different custom that governs another key pillar of civic life—higher education.
Leading schools in LA employ staffs of public relations professionals to promote opinions and commentary from professors on everything from global warming to presidential politics, after all. The concept of academic freedom and fact of tenure provide a perch for truth-telling by educators at public and private institutions. The people of California give additional material support at public schools—everything from the land for campuses to tax money to pay the salaries of educators who are expected to inform the public broadly with circumspect and free discussion and debate.
Yet the academy has been quiet so far on the public corruption that’s eroding the civic foundation of LA.
Could the silence owe to the fact that the two most prominent institutions of higher education in the city—UCLA and USC—are ensnared in scandals of their own? Representatives of both schools recently became part of another federal investigation when they sold academic entry to wealthy parents who were willing to pay bribes to secure placement for their children.
Any wonder that academia shines no light upon—raises no voice against—the corruption at City Hall?
Fourth Estate Fails
The media is fairer game for slings and arrows than the broader private sector or the academy for a couple of reasons: Not only do journalists and publishers and broadcasters tend to revel in the role of public advocate, they enjoy the protection of the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in assuming the mantle.
And what has the free press—the vaunted Fourth Estate—of LA contributed to the public’s understanding of the corruption in our midst?
The major newspapers in SoCal have generally played the roles of stenographers, with the U.S. Attorney dictating the facts of the investigation.
There’s been a bit of passive-aggressive preening on editorial pages—the LA Times decried a lack of outrage among the general public a day after it had buried its own story of the guilty plea that confirmed investigation has reached the mayor’s office.
The LA Times might be a shadow of its former self, but it remains the single-largest news outfit in the city. Why the mealy-mouthed coverage of public corruption? Perhaps because the newspaper itself dances around various ethical breaches of its own under owner Patrick Soon-Shiong, a biotech billionaire whose far-flung operations amount to a floating conflict of interest.
The rest of the legacy media tends toward a herd mentality, which means you won’t likely find anything deeper in coverage by other general-interest newspapers or the radio and TV stations in town.
Coverage also has been skimming for glossy publications and the business press, the latter of which is missing obvious angles on short- and long-term effects of the corruption scandal on the local marketplace—not to mention questions that jump off the pages of the federal indictments about the personalities behind the bribes of cash, booze and sex.
I’ve had exchanges with editors of leading outlets across the spectrum of media in LA, asking about their publications’ coverage of various aspects of local corruption.
Their answers point to a collective failure of curiosity.
Feds Mark Full Circle
City Hall sells out the people of LA.
Leaders of the community of business stay silent.
The halls of academia ring hollow.
The City Hall press corps defers to federal investigators for indictments that provide benchmarks on how much the local media missed as a culture of corruption grew over the course of the past decade.
This blanket of passivity matters because civic institutions are supposed to check one another, fill gaps, alert us to tears in our social fabric—and devise ways of communal mending.
The civic pillars of Los Angeles spent more than 100 years striving to be great, overcoming constant critiques that ranged from outright libel to condescending parodies spread by envious interests in places with less drive.
Now LA’s civic heart seems content to leave a new era of corruption to federal investigators to handle as a simple matter of crime and punishment.
It seems the city's leaders fail to realize that the feds are here because they haven’t been. The federal government shows up when local civic pillars have weakened to a point where they can’t support truth and justice.
It’s apt, here, to offer the assurance that there’s no naivete in this assessment.
History shows that the devils of corruption have long been in the details of the City of Angels—it will take more than the latest combination of dirty deals and public apathy to erase this place.
There is, however, a vast difference between simply being here and being great.
It’s the difference between the Sun Belt and the global stage.
It’s fair to say that the fates of cities have always rested upon their civic institutions.
And just as fair to conclude that cities get the institutions they deserve.
Please bear in mind that the absurdity of having a president who can’t even be bothered with the minimal effort of wearing a mask in public as an example of leadership amid a pandemic doesn’t make it right for local government to engage in the sort of behavior outlined by federal investigators here.