Bill Boyarsky
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A union gumshoe

As newspapers and television pull back from investigative reporting, foundations and other organizations are beginning to fill the void. One of the most interesting is Accountable California, a project of Local 721 of the Service Employees International Union.

Ted Rohrlich, a veteran investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, took charge of Accountable California after leaving the paper in the midst of its many staff reductions. His project is part of the local’s Center For Public Accountability.

The organization’s latest work looks into the salaries of executives heading publicly supported Los Angeles County health or human service nonprofits. It turns out six of them receive more than $300,000 a year, $50,000 more than the salary of Ramon Cortines, who heads the huge Los Angeles Unified School District.

I asked Rohrlich why the union, which represents 80,000 city and county employees, has undertaken the effort. “We don’t want public funds going to waste,” he said. “It’s in our self interest to make sure government works well.”

You might wonder about the motives of a public employee union focusing on salaries in nonprofits. After all, these organizations, financed by government, foundations and donations, can and do shrink the pool of public jobs. On the other hand, the nonprofit sector does need investigating.

Money-starved governments are increasingly turning to nonprofits to operate projects they say they can no longer afford to run. The organizations examined by Accountable California provide medical services to the indigent and uninsured, various services for poor children,and help for the mentally ill.

Small nonprofits often do a better job than big government bureaucracies. But they should be examined closely. We don’t want publicly funded jobs and subcontracts passed out to relatives or old buddies.

After Accountable California’s expose was posted, the Los Angeles Times had an even more powerful story. Alan Zarembo revealed that a job training charity for the developmentally disabled paid its executive director an annual salary of $872,311 and his wife, the associate executive director, $606,862. The fact is with newspapers reducing staff, their own efforts will be cut back.

There’s nothing wrong with a union digging up dirt. Reporters have always used tips from unions, business PR people, cops, nonprofits , and many others with a special interest. Now that there are fewer reporters, these special interests are beginning to finance investigations themselves. As long as they’re fair, it’s a good development. Accountable California was fair in its expose, writing in bold face that only “a small minority of nonprofits pay their executives more than $200,000 or more…Many were paid much less.”

We do need more watchdogs. With mainstream media reporters disappearing, someone has to do the job. Here’s the link to the AccountableCalifornia site.

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