A phone tip about dealings of the Los Angeles County assessor more than a year ago led investigative reporters Brian Hews and Randy Economy to uncover what former Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley has called “the largest and most significant public corruption case in LA County history.”
Hews, owner and publisher of the weekly Los Cerritos Community News, and Economy, who writes for the newspaper, have been officially nominated for journalism’s top honor, a Pulitzer Prize, for breaking open the ongoing case of LA County Assessor John Noguez, who has been arrested on several counts of forgery, fraud and taking bribes.
Speaking at a recent engagement at McKenna’s on the Bay in Long Beach, the investigative-reporting duo said that, if they win, they would use the national attention to shine a light on community newspapers.
“If we are fortunate enough and blessed enough to win the Pulitzer… we’re going to have a national platform to be able to really talk about the importance of community newspapers,” Economy said. “…Don’t give up on your community, and don’t let a little community newspaper go away.”
Longtime investigative reporter Dave Wielenga, who has written for numerous local publications and now publishes GreaterLongBeach.com, arranged the event, which he titled “Reassessing the Power of the Press,” to talk about the significance of traditional journalism in a time when newspapers are suffering from budget cuts, small staffs and dwindling advertising revenue.
“I think at this point, rethinking the power of the press is what we’ve been doing for the last 20 years, as it seems the power of the press is diminishing, [and] we’ve almost gotten to the point where a lot of people are ready to write it off,” Wielenga said before talking about the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution, which includes freedom of the press. “I think we need to ask ourselves, before we decide that newspapers and traditional journalism is no longer relevant, if we really know what we’re throwing away.”
Transforming the weekly newspaper from what Hews called the “hearts and flowers” version to a more aggressive publication now known for covering regional enterprise stories has created some flak from readers, who have called for more local news, said the publisher of the free, weekly newspaper.
“We’re a community newspaper, so our readers don’t like us to cover anything outside of the city, and they’ll let us know,” Hews said.
However, Economy added, “We had to basically educate our readers of what the role of a good community newspaper should be, and it’s basically to do what we’ve been doing for the last year and a half. It’s being able to go ahead and be real raw, but have our facts completely lined up and fact-check, over and over and over again.”
The reporters explained that the story began to develop after receiving their first confirmation from a public official that, indeed, the district attorney’s office was investigating Noguez. However, they didn’t stop there. The two reporters continued on their own investigation, making several Public Records Act requests and discovering that the very contributors to the 2010 campaign of Noguez were in fact listed as the property owners or property-tax agents involved in some 177 properties being reappraised at lower values.
The lower, reassessed values, which were approved through an appeals process, provided property owners with a lower property-tax obligation. The County would then cut checks for the difference between the old and new property taxes, which went into the millions of dollars per property, that would then be split between the property owner and the property-tax agent, who helped get the lower rate, Economy explained.
The scheme, in some cases, involved having the reassessments applied retroactively, ultimately leaving the County to lose millions of dollars in tax revenue while refunding money back to property owners. After scouring through stacks of emails and documents, the reporters eventually uncovered what they called “pay for play” politics in the county assessor’s office, where property owners who contributed to Noguez’s campaign were the ones receiving lower property-tax rates, they said.
After their first story broke in February 2012, they began receiving threats from attorneys and a major political consulting and public-relations firm known as Englander Knabe & Allen, which represented Noguez in his campaign. However, Hews said the threats only proved that they had hit a big story. “We knew we had something at that point,” said Hews, who said the Los Angeles Times eventually picked up the story but didn’t give the reporters credit for breaking the story.
Economy said they had also received calls from people inside and out of the county assessor’s office, praising their work. He added that they had accumulated some 1,000 documented sources. He said, at one point, in a bar miles away from their news office, they met a “Deep Throat”-type source, who provided the reporters with a list of Noguez’s campaign contributions. Economy added that Cooley said he “didn’t know the evidence of the case until he started reading our paper.”
Asked whether pursuing the story was “good for business,” Hews said, “not so far,” however, he added that the story has put the small newspaper in the spotlight, boosting the readership of the newspaper’s website visits to 1 million per day from all over the world. The reporters have since been interviewed on numerous mainstream radio and television shows, and even 60 Minutes has contacted them for a possible news segment about a community newspaper revival.
“I know some things are going to come out of it,” Hews said. “It’s certainly gotten us a lot more notice and the community newspaper in general… I hope that Randy and I are stirring up more community newspapers to do this kind of stuff because we get tips every day that we can’t follow.”