By Fred Shuster
Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas was “shocked” by his federal indictment on conspiracy and bribery charges, his attorney said, insisting the powerful politician has never leveraged his elected posts for personal benefit.
Ridley-Thomas has not personally spoken about the indictment that was announced Wednesday, but attorney Michael J. Proctor said in a statement that the councilman “was shocked by the federal allegations leveled against him, and with good reason. They are wrong, and we look forward to disproving them.”
Proctor said Wednesday that at no point in Ridley-Thomas’ political career, “not as a member of the City Council, the state Legislature or the Board of Supervisors has he abused his position for personal gain. Mark Ridley-Thomas has been in public service for 30 years, and his actions have been open to public scrutiny for a full three decades. Over those 30 years, he has demonstrated the quality of his character.”
“We ask you to allow due process to take its course,” the attorney said.
The 20-count indictment filed in Los Angeles federal court alleges that Ridley-Thomas conspired with Marilyn Louise Flynn, former dean of USC’s School of Social Work, who agreed to provide Ridley-Thomas’ son with graduate school admission, a full-tuition scholarship and a paid professorship. She also allegedly arranged to funnel a $100,000 donation from Ridley-Thomas’ campaign funds through the university to a nonprofit to be operated by his son.
In exchange, the indictment alleges, Ridley-Thomas supported contracts involving the School of Social Work, including contracts to provide services to the county Department of Children and Family Services and Probation Department, as well as an amendment to a contract with the Department of Mental Health that would bring the school millions of dollars in new revenue.
Ridley-Thomas, 66, and Flynn, 83, of Los Angeles, were informed of the indictment Wednesday afternoon and have agreed to appear for their arraignments in Los Angeles federal court in the coming weeks, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Flynn’s attorney, Vicki I. Podberesky, told the Los Angeles Times her client “has not committed any crime, and we believe that the evidence in this case will ultimately support this conclusion.”
Podberesky described Flynn as a veteran academic who had “worked tirelessly for the improvement and betterment of the social welfare network in Los Angeles and around the country.”
The indictment has clouded Ridley-Thomas’ future at City Hall, with at least one of his council colleagues calling on him to resign.
“I am shocked, saddened and disgusted by the federal bribery charges against Mark Ridley-Thomas,” Councilman Joe Buscaino, also a candidate for mayor, wrote on Twitter Wednesday. “These charges tarnish the reputation of the entire LA City Council, and because of that, Ridley-Thomas should immediately step down from his position.”
City Council President Nury Martinez said Wednesday she was “disappointed” in the news, adding, “While the alleged crimes took place while Mr. Ridley-Thomas sat on the Board of Supervisors, these charges are serious and the council will need to take appropriate action.”
She did not specify what action could potentially be taken. When former City Councilman Jose Huizar was arrested last year in connection with a separate corruption case, the council voted to suspend him, leaving his staff to serve as caretakers for the district.
Ridley-Thomas’ 10th District represents an area that includes Arlington Heights, Koreatown, Leimert Park, Gramercy Park, Mid-City, Wilshire Center and Baldwin Village.
Ridley-Thomas was originally scheduled to chair a telephonic meeting Thursday morning of the council’s Homelessness and Poverty Committee, but the meeting was canceled.
At an event in North Hollywood Thursday morning, Councilman Paul Krekorian told reporters, “We have the people’s businesses to do in the council, and these sorts of issues when they come up, at a minimum, are tremendously distracting to the critical work that we have to do at City Hall.”
Mayor Eric Garcetti, at that same event, called the charges a serious matter and said anyone who violates the law should be prepared to pay the consequences. But he reserved judgment on Ridley-Thomas.
“If the allegations are true — people are complicated. They can do good things and bad things. I have certainly witnessed the many good things Mark Ridley-Thomas has done,” Garcetti said.
Both Ridley-Thomas and Flynn are charged with conspiracy and bribery. The indictment also charges both defendants with two counts of “honest services” mail fraud and 15 counts of “honest services” wire fraud.
“This indictment charges a seasoned lawmaker who allegedly abused the public’s trust by taking official actions to benefit himself and his family member,” Acting U.S. Attorney Tracy L. Wilkison said in a statement. “The corrupt activities alleged in the indictment were facilitated by a major university’s high-ranking administrator whose desire for funding apparently trumped notions of integrity and fair play. Public corruption cases are among the most important matters we pursue, and we will continue to investigate and prosecute whenever public officials and others entrusted with taxpayer funds break the law.”
The indictment outlines an alleged scheme in 2017 and 2018 in which then-Supervisor Ridley-Thomas sought benefits from Flynn and university officials to benefit an unnamed relative, who was the subject of an internal sexual harassment investigation in the Assembly, likely to resign from elected office and significantly in debt.
While the indictment did not name the relative, Ridley-Thomas’ son, Sebastian, resigned from the Assembly in 2017 amid investigations into sexual harassment complaints. He insisted at the time that his resignation was due to health reasons, not a sexual harassment probe.
Sebastian Ridley-Thomas later became a professor of social work and public policy at USC — despite lacking a graduate degree. He was later terminated over questions about his original appointment and university concerns about the $100,000 that was donated from his father’s campaign funds to the School of Social Work, then directed to a nonprofit run by Sebastian Ridley-Thomas.
USC issued a statement Wednesday saying, “When the university learned in the summer of 2018 about the $100,000 payment referenced in the indictment, the university disclosed the issue to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and has fully cooperated ever since. Marilyn Flynn has not been employed by the university since September 2018. We will continue to cooperate with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and must limit comments because this is a pending criminal matter.”
Prosecutors claim Mark Ridley-Thomas wanted to secure employment for his son to minimize any public fallout for them both in the wake of Sebastian’s resignation from the Assembly. Meanwhile, the Social Work School was facing a multimillion-dollar budget deficit, which threatened the school’s viability as well as Flynn’s position and reputation as the school’s longtime dean, according to the indictment.
Prosecutors allege Ridley-Thomas and Flynn took steps “to disguise, conceal, and cover up the bribes, kickbacks and other benefits” Ridley-Thomas and his relative received. The pair also concealed, according to the indictment, the true purpose of the $100,000 funneled to the Sebastian Ridley-Thomas’ nonprofit through the university. Prosecutors said the money violated multiple university policies regarding the funding of nonprofits.
Within weeks of Ridley-Thomas contacting Flynn in May 2017 about his son wanting a postgraduate degree from the university, Flynn began a campaign to secure both university admission and a full scholarship for the relative, prosecutors allege.
Flynn wrote in an email that she intended to open every door possible for the son, the indictment alleges. When a university official said Ridley-Thomas had “lots of discretionary money” and should give the university “$1M each year for three years,” according to the indictment, Flynn responded that she and another university official intended to offer the relative a full scholarship in exchange for funds for the school.
In June 2017, Ridley-Thomas and Flynn allegedly reached an agreement, which Flynn later memorialized in a confidential letter that was hand-delivered to Ridley-Thomas, prosecutors said. The indictment alleges that Flynn’s letter detailed her expectations that Ridley-Thomas would steer new contracts with DCFS and Probation to the Social Work School and secure a lucrative amendment to an existing Telehealth-DMH contract.
With the new amendment, Flynn expected the Telehealth contract to generate about $9 million per year for the School of Social Work, prosecutors contend.
The indictment alleges that Ridley-Thomas took a series of official actions, including voting in August 2017 to establish a partnership between the county and Social Work School, and voting in October 2017 to approve a motion that would create a county payment source for the school.
Flynn told university officials in emails that she was “very happy to see that (Ridley-Thomas) was as good as his word” and that he was “really trying to deliver,” the indictment alleges.
The conspiracy count alleged in the indictment carries a penalty of up to five years in federal prison. Each bribery count carries a maximum possible sentence of 10 years. Each of the mail fraud and wire fraud charges carry a penalty of up to 20 years.
Ridley-Thomas is the third Los Angeles city councilman to be indicted in the past year.
Jose Huizar pleaded not guilty in December to bribery and other federal charges in a racketeering indictment alleging he took at least $1.5 million and other benefits from developers who sought favorable treatment on pending real estate development projects. Trial is set for May in the case, which ensnared political operatives, lobbyists and the former general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety.
Mitchell Englander pleaded guilty to a single felony charge in July last year, admitting he schemed to prevent federal investigators from learning about cash and other freebies he received from a Southern California businessman. He was sentenced in January to 14 months behind bars for lying to federal authorities about his dealings with the businessman who provided him $15,000 in secret cash payments and a night in Las Vegas.
Ridley-Thomas is a giant figure in local politics, previously serving on the Los Angeles City Council from 1991-2002, then serving in the state Assembly and state Senate before he was elected to the powerful county Board of Supervisors in 2008, serving until 2020 when he returned to the City Council.
He has a doctorate in social ethics from USC and spent 10 years as executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles, beginning in 1981.