Stealing a City: Lessons from Bell, California

In 2010, a corruption scandal rocked the city of Bell, California, as eight top city officials were arrested for what the Los Angeles Country District Attorney called “corruption on steroids.” The officials were charged with misappropriating funds from city government to the tune of $5.5 million, and garnering salaries as high $800,000, more than quadruple the California governor’s salary. In a series of trials that stretched on for more than three years, the mayor ultimately pled no contest to 69 felonies, and the trials of the various city officials have been riddled with allegations of voter fraud, extortion of local businesses, taking of illegal loans from the city, and manipulation of the pension system. Bell officials even used (and likely tampered with) a referendum to change the city’s legal structure to a chartered city which allowed them to raise their own salaries.

The United States generally experiences very low levels of corruption convictions, around 1,000 per year across the nation. One might expect that some level of state, federal, or citizen oversight would have prevented the Bell incident. Yet this massive scandal was only uncovered due to quality investigative journalism by the Los Angeles Times, and only after five full years of consistent wrongdoing by city officials. How did this happen, and how can similar misconduct be prevented in the future?

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The 2016 CPI and the Value of Corruption Perceptions

Last month, Transparency International released its annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). As usual, the release of the CPI has generated widespread discussion and analysis. Previous GAB posts have discussed many of the benefits and challenges of the CPI, with particular attention to the validity of the measurement and the flagrant misreporting of its results. The release of this year’s CPI, and all the media attention it has received, provides an occasion to revisit important questions about how the CPI should and should not be used by researchers, policymakers, and others.

As past posts have discussed, it’s a mistake to focus on the change in each country’s CPI score from the previous year. These changes are often due to changes in the sources used to calculate the score, and most of these changes are not statistically meaningful. As a quick check, I compared the confidence intervals for the 2015 and 2016 CPIs and found that, for each country included in both years, the confidence intervals overlap. (While this doesn’t rule out the possibility of statistically significant changes for some countries, it suggests that a more rigorous statistical test is required to see if the changes are meaningful.) Moreover, even though a few changes each year usually pass the conventional thresholds for statistical significance, with 176 countries in the data, we should expect some of them to exhibit statistical significance, even if in fact all changes are driven by random error. Nevertheless, international newspapers have already begun analyses that compare annual rankings, with headlines such as “Pakistan’s score improves on Corruption Perception Index 2016” from The News International, and “Demonetisation effect? Corruption index ranking improves but a long way to go” from the Hidustan Times. Alas, Transparency International sometimes seems to encourage this style of reporting, both by showing the CPI annual results in a table, and with language such as “more countries declined than improved in this year’s results.” After all, “no change” is no headline.

Although certain uses of the CPI are inappropriate, such as comparing each country’s movement from one year to the next, this does not mean that the CPI is not useful. Indeed, some critics have the unfortunate tendency to dismiss the CPI out of hand, often emphasizing that corruption perceptions are not the same as corruption reality. That is certainly true—TI goes out of its way to emphasize this point with each release of a new CPI— but there are at least two reasons why measuring corruption perceptions is valuable: Continue reading