How I Got That Story: Jeffrey Anderson

Jeffrey Anderson started his journalism career as a freelance magazine writer in Los Angeles. Prior to that, he was a health care lawyer for seven years. His first print job was a five-year stint with the Daily Journal, a legal publication in L.A. During that time, his coverage of a Catholic clergy scandal caught the attention of L.A. Weekly editors, and in 2003, he began working for them as a government watchdog.

He says now he never could have foreseen how the stacks of files he had collected over the years would come together like they did. What began as curiosity about a failed grand-jury indictment in the south Los Angeles County city of Cudahy turned into shocking stories of government employees abusing their power.

Anderson now writes for the Baltimore City Paper, but says he still follows the cases he investigated in L.A.

Let’s start with how this story began.

I was always looking for fraud and misconduct wherever I could find it: the bigger, the better. The story about Cudahy came from a lawsuit alleging conflict of interest. Back in 2000, Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley took office and made a pledge to find and prosecute corruption in L.A. County. One of the first cities he went after was Cudahy. In 2001, Cooley convened a grand jury to investigate whether Cudahy City Manager George Perez violated criminal conflict-of-interest laws when he voted as a city councilmember for an ordinance that lifted a one-year waiting period between holding political office and appointed office and then stepped down from the council to become city manager — the city’s highest paying job.

Cooley’s office wasn’t able to get an indictment and concluded they “could not prove a criminal violation.” The defense attorney was Cooley’s best friend. The whole thing turned into a quagmire. There was lots of day-to-day coverage of this, but there was little that was in-depth. I decided to look into it.

How did you approach your investigation?

I wrote a story about Steve Cooley, but wanted to find out more about Cudahy. Stories I had heard and the faltered grand jury investigation gave the city a certain aura. It is a strange place, close to L.A., but tucked away between the L.A. River and freeways. I began to look for people who had been around in 2000 and who knew how the power structure had changed since then. It turned out that Perez, the subject of the grand jury investigation and a former janitor, was ruling Cudahy with an iron fist.

My investigation took me into living rooms, diners, food courts and public parks where people started telling me things. Some were credible; others were unpublishable — not provable — but were revelations. I then started learning about the city; combing through court records, land dealings, historic crime statistics, drug trafficking compared to other cities, the gang presence … I also had credible, confidential sources that told me things. The more I learned, the more I got a feeling that dark dealings were happening.

Your investigation was pretty intense. What were the low points? Were you ever threatened?

In L.A. County, records are not well automated. I spent months digging through records. It felt isolating doing all that work alone. Also, there were times when it felt like the story was drying up. It was also difficult to get people to talk on the record. Also, while I was working on the story, the paper changed ownership. I wasn’t sure how dedicated to investigative journalism the new company would be. They supported me and the story got out, but I was working with a sense of urgency.

I was never directly threatened, but I did get plenty of warnings. You know, people telling me to “watch out because I didn’t know who I was messing with.” They would say that kind of stuff almost reflexively. I guess the worst part is eventually you begin to absorb the fears of other people.

Any thoughts for other journalists interested in investigations?

The main thing is you just can’t plan things out in advance. I went back and forth in time several times. I had no idea that researching building department corruption would tie into corruption in south L.A. Things don’t occur logically sometimes. You just need to be ready to revive things you have let go of. You just can’t plan it.

Read the stories that garnered Anderson a first-place finish in Investigative Reporting (circulation 55,000 and over):

“The Town the Law Forgot” series:
The Town the Law Forgot
Cudahy Reformers Lose
Mario Beltran’s Wild Night
Politics Meet Street
The Trouble With Mario Beltran
Friends in Low Places
Did City Hall Fund a Gun-Runner?
Taming the Wild 740 Club
Mario Beltran’s Strange Bedfellows
Mario Beltran’s Undertow

Part of the 2008 “How I Got That Story” series, in which Academy for Alternative Journalism fellows reveal the processes of the writers and editors who won first-place AltWeekly Awards. These interviews also appear in Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2008.

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