L.A. Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas Indicted on Federal Charges

Investigators dig into the relationship between the longtime lawmaker and the USC School of Social Work

A political earthquake hit Los Angeles City Hall late Wednesday afternoon as Mark Ridley-Thomas, one of the region’s most prominent and powerful public officials, was indicted by a federal grand jury.

Ridley-Thomas, who is currently the District 10 representative on the City Council, is one of two people charged in a 20-count indictment alleging bribery and fraud. Also charged is Marilyn Louise Flynn, the former dean of the USC School of Social Work.

According to the Los Angeles branch of the U.S. Department of Justice, Ridley-Thomas, 66, and Flynn, 83, have agreed to appear for their arraignments in United States District Count in coming weeks.

It is a shocking development involving Ridley-Thomas, who has spent three decades in elected office, with accomplishments ranging from pushing police reform in the 1990s to reopening the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital, which replaced the shuttered King-Drew Medical Center.

As recently as a few months ago, Ridley-Thomas was considered by many as a likely candidate for mayor in 2022. In August he told Los Angeles that he had decided to sit out the election so he could continue to focus on his work addressing the city’s homelessness crisis. He has since emerged as one of the most prominent backers of the mayoral campaign of U.S. Rep. Karen Bass.

The indictment alleges that Ridley-Thomas conspired with Flynn on a scheme that occurred while he was a member of the Board of Supervisors. It describes a scenario in which a Ridley-Thomas relative was provided with graduate school admission and a scholarship, along with a paid professorship, and that campaign funds Ridley-Thomas controls were funneled to a nonprofit to be operated by the relative.

While the relative is not named, references to the individual’s time in the California Assembly make clear it involved the then-Supervisor’s son, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas.

Federal prosecutors allege that in exchange for the School of Social Work helping the relative, Ridley-Thomas would direct county contracts that, according to a Department of Justice press release, “would bring the school millions of dollars in new revenue.”

“This indictment charges a seasoned lawmaker who allegedly abused the public’s trust by taking official actions to benefit his family member and himself,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Tracy L. Wilkison. “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 sparked an immediate uproar in City Hall. District 15 Councilman Joe Buscaino, who is running for mayor, called on Twitter for Ridley-Thomas to step down.

Council President Nury Martinez said in a statement that she is “disappointed” by news of federal bribery charges. “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.”

The indictment says the scheme involving Ridley-Thomas and Flynn occurred in 2017 and 2018, and that they took steps to “disguise, conceal and cover up” alleged bribes and kickbacks involving the relative.

Sebastian Ridley-Thomas resigned his Assembly seat in 2017, citing health concerns; media reports later said he was the subject of sexual harassment complaints. Federal prosecutors assert that the Ridley-Thomas relative received a full scholarship worth $26,000, and a paid teaching position with a $50,000 salary. The Los Angeles Times in 2018 reported on the arrangement. The story said USC officials learned of what had transpired, conducted an internal probe, and then contacted federal prosecutors.

Ridley-Thomas and Flynn have both been charged with one count of conspiracy and one count of bribery, as well as two counts of honest services mail fraud and 15 counts of honest services wire fraud.

Ridley-Thomas was first elected to the City Council in 1991, and later served in the state Assembly and Senate. In 2008 he won a seat on the County Board of Supervisors, representing 2 million Second District residents. He proved to be one of the region’s most adept politicians, and played a lead role in urging voters to approve Measure H, a 2017 initiative that, through a quarter-cent sale tax, created $350 million a year for homeless services. He also co-chaired Governor Gavin Newsom’s task force on homelessness.

This is the fourth FBI investigation to shake City Hall in recent years, and the third to involve a member of the City Council. Former District 12 Council member Mitch Englander and District 14 representative Jose Huizar were among the nine people charged as part of Operation Casino Loyale, an investigation into an expansive alleged corruption scheme built around the real estate development industry. Englander pleaded guilty and was sentenced to prison. Huizar is awaiting trial next year.

FBI agents also searched the office of City Attorney Mike Feuer as part of an investigation into a scheme involving a billing system for the Department of Water & Power.

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