The city manager was paying himself $1.5 million a year. City council members earned close to $100,000 for part-time jobs. Yet they were running one of Los Angeles' smallest and poorest suburbs. It was, the local district attorney said, "corruption on steroids."
Could it happen in Washington? You bet it could.
The alleged scam in Bell, Calif., went undetected for at least five years. How? No one was watching. Journalists are called "watchdogs" for a reason. But Bell didn't have any. No local newspaper, no local radio station, no local TV news.
Just like countless communities in this state.
Washington is an information enigma. Some of the nation's leading digital technology companies are headquartered in and around Seattle, yet vast areas of the state are starved of local news. Google and Yahoo are just two of the global internet companies that have opened offices in the state, joining content giants like Amazon and MSNBC.com, yet only 20 towns have a daily newspaper, just 23 have radio stations with some form of local news, and TV is clustered in four cities with tightly-defined coverage areas.
T-Mobile is headquartered here, yet mobile dead zones are common outside the major towns. Facebook recently opened a major office in Seattle, yet Washington's use of social networking platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter is lower than many other states.
In huge sections of Washington, citizens have little or no access to news about what is taking place in their own communities. The situation is particularly grim in areas populated by minorities and on some of the vast Native American reservations.
In short, Washington is a digital state with a rural information ghetto.
"There's no question that all media, including newspapers, have fewer reporters covering fewer towns than in the past 100 years," Michael Shepard, vice president of The Seattle Times, told a recent Murrow College summit of telecommunications and news executives, state and local government officials, foundation representatives and grassroots activists.
Ironically, there are fewer journalistic "boots on the ground" even as the potential audience of the state's papers is dramatically expanding thanks to the internet. The Bell scandal was uncovered when reporters from the Los Angeles Times made a rare foray into town; remote Washington communities can't count on being so lucky.
Making matters worse is the fact that while 96 percent of the state has broadband access, in many rural areas the rate is too slow to stream video.
"The new digital divide is speed," according to Frieda Ray, outreach and communications coordinator for the Washington State Broadband Office.
That digital divide translates into an information divide.
A survey of Washington residents carried out by a Murrow research team found that rural Washingtonians find it much harder to keep up with local news than those living in more urban areas, even though they are just as adept at using digital technology to read regional and national news.
As the citizens of Bell learned, the stakes are high. They go to the heart of the democratic process and drill deep into issues of access to health information, business competitiveness and the state's ability to educate its citizens.
Yet the digital divide also is an economic divide. "If we finally get this technology -- this broadband -- to our towns, are we going to be able to afford it at an individual level but also at a municipal level?" wonders Kristie Kirkpatrick, director of the Whitman County Rural Library District, where residents flock to libraries to get on the internet.
While those taking part in the Murrow summit represented an array of sometimes conflicting interests, there emerged an overarching consensus that action is needed: To create rural news consortia that train "community journalists" to work in partnership with mainstream news organizations; to educate state and local policymakers about the challenges and opportunities inherent in expanding digital information access; and to bolster digital literacy efforts in rural and economically-challenges regions.
The bottom line: A state that is building an economy that rests on digital innovation and global engagement cannot afford even a single information ghetto.
Just ask the people of Bell, Calif.
-- Lawrence Pintak is founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.