The Los Angeles Times, long heralded for its national and international coverage, stayed close to home to reveal a massive corruption scandal and take a gripping look at the effects of gang violence that won two Pulitzer Prizes Monday.
Dozens of people cheered and snapped pictures in the Times downtown newsroom when it was announced the paper had won one Pulitzer for public service for reporting that officials in the suburban city of Bell had paid themselves exorbitant salaries, and another for feature photography for portraits of the victims of gang violence taken by photographer Barbara Davidson.
The Times has now won 41 Pulitzer Prizes.
Jubilant staff writer Jeff Gottlieb, a reporter on the Bell corruption story, clutched a bottle of champagne and offered to fill the glass of anyone who approached as colleagues came forward to offer hugs and handshakes.
Ruben Vives, 32, teamed with Gottlieb on the story, which came to eventually involve about two dozen staffers, including reporters, editors and columnists.
"Last Wednesday was my birthday," Vives said, smiling. "I guess this is my birthday present."
Their revelations regarding how officials hid their gigantic salaries from the residents of the blue-collar town where one in six people live in poverty led to a citizens revolt that culminated last month when voters put the entire City Council out of office.
"The real victors in this are the people of Bell, who were able to get rid of — there's no other way to say it — an oppressive regime," said Gottlieb, 57.
The revelations gave a major moral boost to the Times as it perseveres through financial troubles.
Editor Russ Stanton said the paper doesn't always get the attention it deserves for its coverage of local news.
"At a time when people are saying newspapers are dying, I think this is the day when we can say, no, not really," Vives said. "We gave a small town, we gave them an opportunity to speak out. That's what newspapers do."
Davidson's photographs exposed the enduring heartbreak suffered by innocent victims of gang violence and their loved ones. She spent two years documenting the stories, sometimes meeting with people several times to win their trust before photographing them. She said Monday she was humbled by the award.
Her photos show images of children brutally scarred by bullets, of a woman left paralyzed who struggles to tell her children she can never walk again, and of a man devastated by the murder of his son, a star athlete.
The Pulitzer judges called her work "an intimate story of innocent victims trapped in the city's crossfire of deadly violence."
The Times broke the Bell salaries story last July after Gottlieb and Vives, looking into the finances of another city, heard from an investigator in the district attorney's office that an inquiry was under way into the salaries of Bell's City Council members.
After weeks of pressing Bell officials to fulfill their California Public Records request, the reporters learned former City Manager Robert Rizzo was paid an annual base salary of nearly $800,000, almost twice that of President Barack Obama. With lucrative vacation pay and other perks he granted to himself, Rizzo had an annual compensation package of about $1.5 million.
Four of the five City Council members received salaries of about $100,000 a year, the police chief $457,000 — far more than the Los Angeles police chief — and the assistant city manager more than $375,000.
Last September, eight Bell officials were arrested and charged with numerous counts of fraud, misappropriation of public funds, falsification of public records and other crimes. They are awaiting trial.
It was later learned that Bell officials funded their lucrative salaries by improperly raising property taxes, business license fees, trash collection fees and other sources of revenue. Property taxes in Bell had become higher than those in Beverly Hills until the state controller's office ordered the tax money refunded.
After Gottlieb and Vives filed their initial report, the Times promised it would stay on top of the story.
The Times has been hobbled by the troubles of its owner, Tribune Co., which has been operating under federal bankruptcy protection since December 2008. Tribune Co. has been trying to shed debt it took on in an $8.2 billion buyout engineered by real estate mogul Sam Zell.
The U.S. economy plunged into the recession around the time the buyout was completed, triggering staff cuts at the Times before and after the bankruptcy filing.