Corruption Trial of Suspended Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas Begins in L.A.

In April 2018, the career politician allegedly arranged a bribe with the former dean of the University of Southern California’s social work school to benefit his son

The federal corruption trial of suspended Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who faces charges alleging he routed county contracts to USC’s social work school in exchange for benefits to his son, is set to begin today with jury selection 

In April 2018, Ridley-Thomas allegedly arranged for the former dean of the University of Southern California’s social work school, Marilyn Flynn, to funnel $100,000 from his campaign account through the institution to a nonprofit operated by his son. Sebastian Ridley-Thomas had recently resigned from the state Assembly amid a sexual harassment probe.

Prosecutors say the councilman sought to provide funding to support his son’s nonprofit but didn’t want the money linked to him or his campaign. So he agreed to provide the money to Flynn, who sent $100,000 in university funds to the nonprofit, known as the Policy, Research & Practice Initiative.

The arrangement was hidden from USC by Flynn and Ridley-Thomas, knowing it would have violated policy, prosecutors said. Flynn pleaded guilty in September to one count of bribery, admitting that she agreed to steer money from the then-supervisor to Sebastian’s nonprofit.

At the time, Flynn was trying to get an amendment to a lucrative contract between the school of social work and the county mental health department involving services provided by USC Telehealth — a clinic with USC students providing online mental health and counseling services to county-referred clients.

Prosecutors said the social work school was facing a multimillion-dollar budget deficit at the time.

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After the money transfer was completed, Ridley-Thomas allegedly set up a meeting in May 2018 between Flynn and a high-level county official to discuss moving forward with the amendment Flynn was seeking on the contract. Ridley-Thomas subsequently voted in favor of the amendment, according to federal prosecutors.

Flynn, 84, is scheduled to be sentenced on June 26; the federal bribery charge carries a possible term of up to 10 years behind bars.

Prosecutors have said that the amended contract was expected to generate about $9 million a year for the USC School of Social Work.

Sebastian Ridley-Thomas later became a professor of social work and public policy at USC—despite never completing a graduate degree. He was later terminated over questions about his original appointment and concerns by the university over the $100,000 donation. The indictment of Ridley-Thomas also alleged that he conspired with Flynn to obtain a full-tuition scholarship and graduate school admission for his son.

Ridley-Thomas was suspended from the Los Angeles City Council following the October 2021 federal indictment. He is charged with one count each of conspiracy and bribery, two counts of honest services mail fraud and 15 counts of honest services wire fraud. He has vehemently denied any wrongdoing.

Flynn was dean of the School of Social Work at USC for 21 years until her departure in 2018. She had originally been facing the same slate of federal charges as Ridley-Thomas.

Responding to news of Flynn’s plea agreement, USC issued a statement in 2022 saying that after the university learned during the summer of 2018 about unethical conduct by the former dean, “we quickly disclosed the matter to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Marilyn Flynn has not been employed by the university since September 2018. USC is not a party to the criminal case but respects the judicial process.”

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 holds 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.

City News Service contributed to this report

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