Calif. utility paid $200K for positive web stories

COMMERCE, Calif. (AP) — A Southern California water utility paid nearly $200,000 in taxpayer dollars for glowing coverage from a website that boosted its profile on Google, according to a newspaper report.

The Los Angeles Times reports (http://lat.ms/pDLHME) that officials from the Central Basin Municipal Water District used public funds to have a consultant produce promotional stories “written in the image of real news,” and to have those stories posted on a professional-looking website called News Hawks Review.

The utility used the stories to boost its ranking on Google, which classified News Hawks Review as a news site, the newspaper reported.

Google removed the site from its search index Tuesday, following publication of the Times’ story, saying News Hawks Review had violated its guidelines.

The site had published more than 30 glowing stories about the utility in the past year.

Central Basin spokeswoman Valerie Howard told the Times that she did not find the website misleading and the campaign had helped bring more web traffic to the utility’s website.

The utility serves more than 2 million customers in southeast Los Angeles.

Terry Francke of Californians Aware told the newspaper that the utility engaged in a serious breach of the public trust.

“If it was known and approved by the board, it could be interpreted as the use of $200,000 of taxpayer funds as a self-promotion to help them stay in office,” Francke said.

The utility has earned some bad press in the past year.

Los Angeles County prosecutors are investigating the elected board’s travel expenses.

The Times’ earlier reporting revealed the utility had signed contracts totaling more than $2 million with a nonprofit run by a former Bell city councilman charged with public corruption.

Some local politicians have called for a state audit of the utility’s finances.

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