Great newspaper stories — like the shocking L.A. County tax scandal involving Assessor John Noguez — usually don't come from attending government meetings or going to press conferences.
The tip that ignites a reporter's passion almost always comes in a telephone call, as it did last December for Randy Economy, investigative reporter for the Los Cerritos Community Newspaper, a 55,000-circulation weekly with a staff of five, including owner-publisher Brian Hews.
What happened over the next eight months shows just how important professional news media still are in the age of the blogosphere — even small community and weekly newspapers — at a time when the total audience for local TV news and large daily newspapers is smaller than what the No. 1 station and dominant paper in a market used to attract.
For Economy, 52, who is legally blind, with only partial vision in his left eye, and Hews, whose family owned the Wave newspapers until 1998, it has been the adventure of a lifetime.
“The first call we got back in December was from an employee deep inside the assessor's office and he was angry, and very passionate about what was going on inside the office,” Economy recalled last week.
“He said, ‘There's this guy who's always in John Noguez's office, and he's going around telling everybody what to do. You got to check this guy out. It's creepy. I called the L.A. Times. I called Channel 2. I'm reaching out to everybody and nobody is taking my calls.”
“I'll take your call, I'll listen,” responded Economy, 52, who spent most of his career as a political consultant and government relations aide in the cable TV industry until joining the Los Cerritos staff two years ago.
In meeting with his source and getting other calls from insiders, Economy learned the guy in Noguez's office was tax agent Ramin Salari, one of half-dozen slick operators who rounded up contributions to Noguez's campaign and got favorable treatment for their clients in the form of massive property tax assessment reductions on luxury homes and buildings — reductions that were worth hundreds, even thousands, of times the value of donations.
Just before Christmas, David Demerjian, head of the county district attorney's Public Integrity Division, confirmed to Economy that “inquiries” were opened into two possible cases involving the assessor's office.
“I still remember Randy walking in and saying he just got a phone call saying the D.A. is going to investigate Noguez,” recalled Hews.
“I said, ‘Go for it.' A few weeks later we met our source, our ‘Deep Throat,' and he handed us a stack of documents, campaign donations all marked up. We started getting more and more calls from people inside saying, ‘Thank you, thank you.' It was like you can't make this stuff up.”
The big story is every journalist's dream, but for Hews and Economy, it sometimes felt too big. So they were cautious and clued in the Los Angeles Times about where they were at.
Sure they had it right, Hews green-lighted the story for an early preview online on Feb. 7 and for publication in that week's print edition. Economy posted this on his own blog: “I broke this news story wide open this afternoon … John Noguez is under an official inquiry … look for coverage in the Los Angeles Times on Thursday. Is this the tip of the iceberg? Hummm.”
The story exploded in the pages of the Cerritos weekly and in the Times: What could be worse — if you can't trust the tax man, who can you trust?
Three weeks later, the weekly carried this headline: “‘Pay to play politics' rampant at L.A. County assessor's office,” a story that exposed the links between political contribution and tax reductions. Week after week, the Cerritos paper pounded at the story, obtaining three batches of revealing Assessor emails, thousands of them, all put up online for all to see.
Week after week, the story kept gaining momentum, with so much evidence collected in massive raids on offices and homes in two states in documents, computers and cellphones that it is stored in two locations, with D.A. investigators going through the material for evidence of criminality. Top aides to Noguez were removed even as he was forced to take paid leave amid calls from the Cerritos paper and county District Atty. Steve Cooley for him to resign.
It is the story of a lifetime, one of the biggest scandals in modern L.A. history, a Watergate-style journalistic adventure that took Economy and Hews to dark bars and remote meeting places, and subjected them to threats and bullying from Noguez allies and advisers.
“It's like a circus, too big to go away,” said Economy, who last week published the audio and transcript of interim Assessor Santos Kreimann, a Beaches and Harbors career county bureaucrat who was recorded by wired staffers telling the troops he's “trying to figure out what the hell I'm supposed to be doing,” but warning his employees there will be “consequences” if anyone talks to reporters.
“I didn't have a clue what the assessor's office did when we started this,” Economy said. “Brian and I walked into the Hall of Administration and had doors slammed in our faces. We saw the tax agents cutting deals in the basement of the lunch room and then go into the appeals board with deals for deep tax cuts.
“This has opened up a whole new world for us, to be able to carry the banner for community newspapers, to let people know that community newspapers matter, that we have the ability to do this kind of journalism, to be influential.
“We can't afford to lose this vein of our hometown democracy.”
You can knock your local newspaper all you want. But if you need help, or know something rotten is going on, who you going to call? Ghostbusters?
RON KAYE can be reached at email@example.com. Share your thoughts and stories with him.