Long before the main stream media picked up on the corruption in Southeast cities like Bell, Los Angeles County had its own watchdog snarling in the margins. A self-described “courageously innovative, muckraking website,” WatchOurCity.com has been tattling on suspicious politicians in Southeast Los Angeles for the greater part of the decade.
The site has dedicated itself to covering perceived conflicts and corruption in cities like Bell, Maywood and Huntington Park, which are now in the crosshairs of the media and the attorney general’s office alike. The tone of the site can be breathless and conspiratorial, but given the recent revelations about salaries in Bell, there is clearly more than a kernel of truth to the worldview.
The site’s editor is anonymous. The stories all run without bylines. But the website’s author and owner spoke to Capitol Weekly by phone this week.
“This doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” he said referring to the Bell scandals. One of the key insiders responsible for breaking those top stories, according to the mysterious muckraker, is him.
So why the anonymity? “I am very afraid for (my sources) and myself.” There is no office, no telephone number, no email, no staff, just a “contact” tab online where people can – and do – send information without logging in or giving a name of any kind.
Any Google search of Bell or its neighbor cities Huntington Park and Maywood will likely bring up articles from WatchOurCity.com, often the first site to shamelessly report on political corruption in south L.A. Several of the top stories gracing headlines today began unfolding on his website about a year-and-a-half ago, “they went nowhere,” he says.
“I call the muggings before they happen and they continue to happen (anyway).”
His website is a potpourri of muckraking and angst.
There is banter connecting powerful politicians to sky-rocketing property taxes. Tart, acid-dipped headlines, like “George Cole’s Dirty Fat Hands Now in the Cookie Jar of Charter Schools,” are spattered across the home page with matter-of-fact urgency. Throughout the stories are links to public records and top news stories related to local government in the Southeast – stories that WatchOurCity.com helped leak.
“These stories need to be told, and if nobody tells them it’s the right ethical thing to do,” says the editor.
Not everybody is complimentary. In an earlier story, Huntington Park Mayor John Noguez, a critic and sometimes target of the site, said the site’s biases have made it little more than an opinion blog.
“I lost respect for them when they started doing that,” the first-term mayor said. “A prudent website that is non-opinionated, just gives the facts, is what’s necessary virtually in every city. Black and white was all they needed to print, and they chose to start doing a lot more than that. It’s completely one-sided. They only take the bad.”
In the margins are definitions of words like “corruption,” decorated with a backdrop of an open mouth of gritted teeth. The site may be treading quietly but it does not tread lightly.
The site’s anonymous tattler has secured a safe mouthpiece for whistleblowers all over L.A to share insider information regarding local government. Every by-line simply reads “The Editor.”
And while the man behind the web page is known only by his gender, his efforts have not gone unnoticed. The L.A Times wrote a glowing profile on the site back in 2004, the same year WatchOurCity.com won a Beacon Award from the First Amendment Coalition, which advocates on behalf of public access to government. The award, which was presented at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, praised WatchOurCities.com for its “outstanding efforts to provide the public access to critical information.”
Six years later, what started as mere street talk has evolved into a localized, WikiLeaks for Southern California. Even as the state’s major papers report on the bloated salaries of Bell city officials and other area problems, WatchOurCity.com says they are just scratching the surface.
“The media’s focus on Bell’s criminal-level salaries is merely a one-dimensional view of the endemic larger problem; the bigger problem is three-dimensional, the festering network of corruption between officials in the southeast,” reads the current Editor’s Note.
But the ruthless raking isn’t without its laughs.
The site is also speckled with Spanish idioms and colloquialisms in “Cut Me In,” a satirical bit of “Noir Pulp Fiction” stories “with a Latino twist, based on real-life shenanigans at small-time local city halls,” authored by The Editor. Check out the right margins of WatchOurCity.com’s “Geometry of Corruption” to read about the lethal combination of “A gay Latino mayor with a lust for money, a convicted cop, and a hot Latina.” Have fun matching the characters to their inferred headlines.
But behind the dark humor, there is danger, as The Editor clearly acknowledges
Editor’s Note: Corrects earlier version, 15th paragraph, to show that award was from the First Amendment Coalition, not the UC Berkeley School of Journalism.