‘Rizzo loaned Bell’s money to firms’ (September 1)

The following is an analysis that is part of a graduate thesis. Learn more.

This article investigated loans of Bell funds, apparently given by Rizzo to city businesses. The story closely tied its reporting on the specifics of the loans themselves with claims about their propriety.

The reporters spent comparatively little time establishing the existence of the loans compared to the time spent establishing why the loans were unusual. However, there were just enough claims about both topics to divide the story into two issues, although, admittedly, the distinction is fine.

Issue 1 was descriptive: “What was the process by which the two Bell businesses received the loans?” Issue 2 was prescriptive: “Should the loans have been given?”

First, what evidence did the reporters have for what they said about the details of the loans? Information about the first loan, to a car dealer, was sourced with “documents” (1), “court records” (7), “loan documents” and a “promissory note” (21), and “the lawsuit Bell later filed against [the dealer]” (22). This seemed sufficient, although with the exceptions of the lawsuit and promissory note none of the “documents” were described as anything much beyond “documents,” requiring the reader to assume the documents referenced are appropriate for the task they were employed for.

There were fewer details offered about the second loan, to “the Steelworkers Old Timers Foundation, a senior citizens group run by George Cole, who was on the Bell City Council then.” The reporters wrote that “It is unclear whether the $72,000 loan was repaid” (4) and later that little is known about the loan“ (23). Nothing more about the source of the reporters’ knowledge was said, so readers need to once again assume the ”documents“ described what the reporters said they did (readers might wonder, for example, what document showed that the loan existed but apparently said nothing else about it). Even a brief description of the ”documents," as was given regarding the auto loan, might have helped clear this confusion.

With an understanding in place of where the reporters’ knowledge about the loans came from, what conclusions did they draw about how the businesses came into the loans?

The reporters provided a quartet of conclusions about the loans: that they were given “without public discussion, approval from the City Council or collateral to back the loans” (1) and “with no statement of economic benefit to the city” (3).

What evidence did the reporters offer in support of their conclusions? Readers probably should grant some lenience in general when searching for any. The reporters faced an uphill battle on each conclusion, given that each involved proving a negative — “no public discussion” and the like.

Proving negatives is difficult, but readers could detect degrees of grounding available to them for each claim. Toward the “stronger” end of the spectrum would be the reporters’ evidence for the conclusion that the loan to the car dealer wasn’t approved by the council:

A review by The Times found no mention in council or redevelopment agency minutes or agendas of the May 2008 loan to Sopp [the auto dealer].

Council members Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal and then-council member Cole said in interviews that they didn’t remember approving the loan to Sopp. (14–15)

The reporters were clear in the “records” they searched and provided additional support for their claim with testimony from people who were in a position to know whether the council addressed the loan.

A similarly strong citation was available to support some of the reporters’ conclusion about the loan to the Steelworkers Old Timers Foundation. The claim that there had been no “public discussion” regarding the loan was justified by referencing a search of specific documents, namely “agendas and minutes” (although readers must assume that the definition of “public discussion” is “discussion in public council meetings”) (27). The claim that the council had not approved the loan was supported by paraphrasing Jamie Casso, then Bell’s interim city attorney, as saying he had been “unable to find council approval of the [loan] in a preliminary look through Bell’s files” (26).

Generic references to various “documents” comprised the weaker end of the spectrum of evidence. The reporters’ remaining claims about the loans — that there was no collateral or economic benefit statement — relied solely on these references.

The reporters also claimed that one characteristic of the loans, that they were made without a statement of economic benefit to the city, was “highly unusual” (3). This part of the conclusion about the loans had even less than support than “documents”; it had none. Readers would have had to take the reporters on their authority that such moves were unusual. Readers might have wondered why the assertion was not addressed in paragraph 19, where the reporters noted:

Giving a loan to a car dealer is not unusual for cities, particularly during the recession. Both Victorville and Norco, for example, have approved aid to dealers in recent years.

That seems an optimal time to have cited the economic benefit statements included with those loans, to drive home the point that its absence was “unusual.” That the reporters did not cite such a statement does not disprove the claim that economic statements are commonplace, but it could reasonably cause some second-guessing about the reporters’ accuracy.

The phrasing of the second issue, “should the loans have been given?”, is broad. But the breadth of the statement is useful because it covers the two kinds of reasons the reporters used to suggest that the loans were improper.

One kind of reason was moral; the other was legal. Both reasons were covered by the broad appeal to expert opinion in paragraph 5: “Several experts said the secret loans violated basic tenets of municipal government and appeared to violate Bell’s charter.” So the conclusion was that the loans were improper because they were contrary to practices of good government, and because they were probably illegal.

However, of the “several experts” cited, only one was quoted: “veteran municipal lawyer Michael G. Colantuano.” Said he: “This is a complete breakdown of checks and balances. … It’s plainly illegal” (6). (Presumably, the first half of the statement goes toward the loans breaking practices of good government, and the second half toward the violation of Bell’s charter.) No additional credentials for Colantuano were given and no other of the “several experts” cited were mentioned.

The other evidence cited in favor of both conclusions was quotes from Casso. He was cited in favor of the illegality thesis when he said he “could find no” council resolution granting Rizzo the unilateral power to give the loans; Rizzo’s attorney was quoted one paragraph previously claiming the existence of such a resolution. Casso was also paraphrased as saying that “giving the city administrator such sweeping powers would have violated the City Charter” (11), which is plainly illegal. Additionally, Casso was quoted as saying that “a loan of almost any kind to almost anyone of city money is so extraordinary that I can’t understand why it was not taken to the council” (12), which furthers the claim that the actions violated tenets of good government.[1]

Casso obviously would have been in a position to have special access to knowledge about city business and the actions of the council, so his word carried significant weight. However, as his reference to the council as “my client” betrayed (18), Casso was also an attorney working on behalf of the council, which by this point was essentially the same as working in opposition to Rizzo. His expert testimony was somewhat bound, then. Readers have to wonder why the Times did not just conduct its own review of the resolutions passed by the city if it wanted to demonstrate a particular point, as it did regarding whether the council had approved the auto loan.

Both issues addressed in this story, then rely more on arguments from authority than had occurred in previous articles, to mixed effect. Those arguments would have been stronger had more experts been quoted or listed, or had the reporters relied on experts with duller axes to grind. But those weaknesses were not quite as glaring as those regarding conclusions that were left without any supporting evidence.

  1. Perhaps inadvertently, this quote also forced the reader to assume that a loan to a car dealership falls into the “almost” exceptions of “almost any kind to almost anyone.” Otherwise, the reporting in the story that other cities’ loaning money “is not unusual” would contradict Casso’s claim, which in turn would weaken the reporters’ claim that Rizzo violated tenets of good government.  ↩

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