Watchdogs needed for cities like Bell

Local government corruption could be prevented if the public paid more attention to the structure and activities of their city councils, Assemblyman Hector De la Torre said at a panel discussion at USC earlier this month.

Residents of Bell were appalled when City Council members were recently charged with public corruption in a scandal uncovered by the Los Angeles Times. Charges include misappropriation of public funds, falsification of documents and conflict of interest. The investigation revealed that Bell’s city manager was being paid twice the salary of the President of the United states, while other members of the council were earning hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

Corruption in Bell and other charter cities can be attributed to a lack of government transparency and accountability, panelist said at a discussion held Oct. 4 at the University of Southern California.

“You have city managers who get housing allowances, one-and-a-half million dollars to buy a house,” said De la Torre. “Some of these practices are happening up and down the state of California.”

With a declining number of local news publications and fewer reporters from larger newspapers covering city councils, residents have lost access to important information about local government affairs.

There is usually one reporter assigned to cover 28 cities said Bob Stern president, of the Center for Governmental Studies. In a telephone interview, he said more reporters focusing on government affairs would make a huge difference in smaller cities like Bell.

Panelists at the conference agreed.

“If you look at the number of reporters that city newspapers assigned to state governance today compared to 20 years ago, it’s traumatically reduced,” said De la Torre.

Panelists at the conference said most residents in Bell are working-class citizens who are struggling to make a living and do not have the time or resources to act as watchdogs.

The City Council of Bell took advantage of residents and their inability to monitor the city council, paying themselves huge salaries, with the city manager making nearly $800,000 a year.

Stern said that citizens in Bell faced an even bigger challenge than most residents of smaller cities because their City Council had often refused to release information upon request.

Panelists agreed that the members of Bell’s City Council acted without transparency, meeting secretly and withholding official government records from the public.

Times reporter Jeff Gottlieb said that he and his colleague Ruben Vives had to threaten to sue Bell to release documents of official salaries and City Council minutes.

Under the California Public Records Act, local government agencies are required to provide anyone who asks for information or documentation about their actions and spending. Most government records are considered public.

Gottlieb said the information he and his colleague received could have been sought by anyone.

“We don’t get documents that the average citizen can’t get,” Gottlieb said.

The Bell case is an issue less about corruption and more about education said De la Torre. There are always “bad people” eager to take advantage of a public that does not understand the structure, context or language of government he said.

There are many lessons to be learned from what happened in Bell said De la Torre. Among them, he said, that it’s important that this type of corruption is not seen as an isolated incident because it is a problem that other regions could face too.

De la Torre asked that the public not condemn all government officials and institutions.

“Trust but verify,” said De la Torre.

OPINION: The Prosperity Gospel according to Eddie Long

imageSikivu Hutchinson is the editor of and a senior fellow with the Institute for Humanist Studies. Become a fan of Blackfemlens on Facebook.

Who was it who said that it would be easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than a filthy rich pastor with a $350,000 Bentley to get into the Kingdom of God? And how long will it be before the Lord, working mysteriously, delivers New Birth Missionary Church Bishop Eddie Long — Bentley ditched for a Pinto — sobbing Jimmy Swaggart cum Ted Haggard-style in a warm lather of repentance on cable TV?

Accused of sexually abusing young men in his congregation, arch homophobe and macho man mentor of boys Long would seem to be the devil’s latest casualty.

In a week in which “God” has been routinely invoked to immunize crooks from criminal investigation and social condemnation, the Long allegations are yet another shining example of the sexually, morally and fiscally corrupt business of organized religion.

In the scandal-plagued city of Bell, California an indicted City Council member/pastor trotted out his belief in God as a cover for alleged misconduct. In an investment fraud case reverberating through the Los Angeles Police Department, victims cited the “Christian” orientation of the suspects as the primary motivating factor for their trust. Arguing for clemency, supporters of Virginia Death Row inmate Teresa Lewis piously vouched for her Christian prison “conversion.”

Having learned zero from the global pedophile priest scourge, our stridently Judeo Christian culture still routinely uses the assignation man or woman “of God” to shut down debate or consideration of how religion and religious authority gives license to those who act immorally. Indeed, how many times have we heard that a certain person could not have committed ‘that there’ serial murder because he was a good man of God, a devout Christian and a churchgoer who could regurgitate scripture on demand? And how many times have predators and hardcore career criminals been given a figurative pass or viewed as above suspicion because they were churchgoing Christians doing the Lord’s (dirty) work? Conversely, how many times have we heard the caveat that a certain person could not have committed ‘that there’ serial murder because they were a humanist, atheist or agnostic?

imageThe ATL’s very own ringleader of the prosperity gospel, Long has blazed a trail as an anti-same sex marriage Christian soldier and self-proclaimed “spiritual daddy” to a nationwide army. After the death of Coretta Scott King in 2004, Earl Ofari Hutchinson notes that, “Long’s anti-gay phobia was so virulent that then NAACP president Julian Bond publicly declared he would not attend (her) funeral service at Long’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church.” A prominent supporter of George W. Bush and his anti-gay policies, Long and several other prosperity gospel predators were the subject of a 2007 federal probe on fiscal mismanagement of their tax exempt status. Launched by the U.S. Senate, the investigation was spearheaded by the Trinity Foundation, a nonprofit “religious media watchdog” dedicated to exposing fraud and financial improprieties within the billion-dollar megachurch industry.

imageLong’s empire of niche ministries, books, gospel shows and seminars powers a robber baron’s lifestyle of expensive cars, homes and private jets. One of these niche ministries involves spiritual counseling for young men and “delivering” men from homosexuality. According to a former New Birth parishioner, Long evoked themes of hyper-masculinity and required obeisance to himself as divinely ordained patriarch. The trespasses of Long and other good Christian evangelicals was scrutinized in Sarah Posner’s 2008 book God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters.

Yet while the sex abuse epidemic in the Catholic Church has received much coverage, similar epidemics in Protestant churches have remained underreported. Commenting on the 2008 Chris Brown/Rihanna abuse incident black feminist anti-violence activist Kevin Powell recounted how he’d been approached for advice by a young woman who had been sexually abused by her pastor since she was five years old. Similarly, a young woman of my acquaintance related that she had been repeatedly molested by her pastor after her parents had entrusted her in his care. Clearly, sexual abuse is an endemic social issue that is not peculiar to organized religion. However, the mindset of the religious sexual predator is markedly different from one operating in a secular context because of the presumption of righteous morals and a higher calling. Further, religious hierarchies (be they Muslim, Christian, Mormon, Orthodox Jewish, etc.) delineating masculine roles, responsibilities and privileges perpetuate a culture of patriarchal entitlement and heterosexist control.

The Bible’s sanction of violence against women (e.g., rape and forced marriage) provides theological justification for viewing and treating women like property. If women are deemed to be second class citizens in scripture, and consigned to helpmate roles in the church, why wouldn’t male clergy act with impunity when it comes to sex and power? And if the culture of compulsory heterosexuality demands that men hew to rigid gender norms, it stands to reason that some closeted gay clergy will abuse their power by sexually abusing young male parishioners. Indeed, the heterosexist cult of the exalted pastor is based on the belief that “real men” should be inscrutable in their exercise of power and authority. Thus, the religious sexual predator may rationalize his behavior as being “ordained” by God. God confers him with ultimate authority and moral license. “His” ways are part of a divine moral order that mere laypeople don’t have access to.

From the time African American children become socially aware, the dominant culture reinforces the heterosexist perception of male clergy’s invulnerability and “above the law” status. Preachers are revered as founts of knowledge, wisdom and “reason.” In middle to working class black communities the absence of formal religious training or education is no barrier to having the title “Rev” “Dr.” or even “Reverend Doctor” slapped in front of one’s name. Consequently, the strong preacher (father) figure is one of the most universally respected models of masculinity in African American communities. Available for counsel and succor to male and female parishioners, the “daddy” pastor’s biblically sanctioned faith pimping spiritual ministry translates into emotional manipulation, psychological control, and sexual exploitation.

In America being a macho man and a professional homophobe is big business, one that jeopardizes the lives and mental health and wellness of thousands of gays and lesbians. Regardless of whether the allegations against Long are true or not, his prosperity gospel of gay-bashing and robber baron profiteering at the expense of poor black people is another indictment of the moral injustice that happens on “God’s” watch.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of and a senior fellow with the Institute for Humanist Studies. This article originally appeared here.