On Oct. 13, federal prosecutors stunned Los Angeles by indicting 30-year political veteran Mark Ridley-Thomas on bribery and fraud charges. Within a week, the City Council voted 11-3 to suspend him, and City Controller Ron Galperin announced he would withhold the District 10 representative’s pay.
Ridley-Thomas has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting an August trial. Yet amid indications that the council may soon appoint someone to fill his post, a cadre of prominent individuals are swinging back, sending a trio of sharply worded letters that touch on representation and race, with one threatening a lawsuit.
A Monday letter sent to the members of the City Council from attorney John Sweeney asserts that Ridley-Thomas’ suspension was “unlawful.” It warns that District 10 constituents and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which he represents, “are prepared to sue the City Council unless we receive immediate and satisfactory resolution of our concerns.” Those include that Ridley-Thomas’ seat not be declared vacant before his trial, and that he be able to return to his post “upon an acquittal.”
Federal authorities allege that Ridley-Thomas conspired with former USC School of Social Work Dean Marilyn Flynn to arrange for the politician’s son, former State Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, to receive admission to a university graduate school program, a scholarship and a paid teaching role. In return, authorities allege, Ridley-Thomas, then a member of the County Board of Supervisors, would direct lucrative contracts to the school. Flynn has also pleaded not guilty.
A second letter, to Council President Nury Martinez and second-in command Mitch O’Farrell, comes from a group of a dozen Black South Los Angeles religious leaders. It urges the elected officials to refrain from either calling a special election to fill the seat or appointing a replacement for Ridley-Thomas. It excoriates the council heads and says constituents, “were summarily denied their elected representative in important matters through an arbitrary, hasty, legally questionable, punitive and pernicious decision made at the sole discretion of a City Council majority under your leadership.”
A third letter, from a pair of state lawmakers, asks California Attorney General Rob Bonta to look at the legality of the council’s moves.
Martinez and other council members have not publicly discussed next steps. But a Feb. 3 Los Angeles Sentinel story said she has been meeting with area residents and leaders “in plans for appointing a voting member to the Los Angeles City Council to represent the 10th Council District in the coming weeks.”
In November, Ridley-Thomas’ chief of staff, Karly Katona, was appointed to serve as the district caretaker. But she lacks the voting rights that the 14 other council members carry.
“It’s important to me that residents of the district continue to have stable services, are provided with the resources they need, and are represented with a voting member amongst the Council,” Martinez told the Sentinel.
The letter from the group dubbed the South Los Angeles Clergy for Public Accountability charges that when Ridley-Thomas was suspended, district inhabitants were left without representation on matters such as the redistricting process that took place last fall. It says that Ridley-Thomas is being punished for allegations relating not to work he did with the city, but during his time on the County Board of Supervisors.
The signatories to the letter represent a powerful swath of religious life in South Los Angeles. They include Pastor Charles E. Blake Sr. of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ, Pastor J. Edgar Boyd of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, Pastor K.W. Tulloss, president of the Baptist Ministers Conference, and Christ Liberation Ministries Pastor Thembekila Smart.
Although Martinez indicated that appointing a voting council member would enhance district representation, the clergy members argued that it would not reflect the wishes of the constituents who voted Ridley-Thomas into office.
“If you move forward with an appointment, albeit ‘temporary,’ that person will not be independent or accountable to CD10 constituents,” the letter says. It soon adds, “Instead, the appointee will be beholden to the majority of the City Council who appointed him or her.”
Sweeney’s letter questions the legality of the suspension. So does the one sent to Bonta by state Senator Steven Bradford, chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, and Assemblyman Mike Gipson, who chairs the Assembly’s Democratic Caucus. Both letters mention that, five days after federal charges were filed, Ridley-Thomas offered to step back from participating in council meetings, but that the council instead voted to suspend him.
The letter from Bradford and Gipson asks Bonta “for an opinion on the constitutionality of actions undertaken by the Los Angeles City Council.”
The two letters also delve into regulations outlined in the City Charter, and question if the council has the authority to take the steps it did, or make further moves. Sweeney’s letter says that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights group Ridley-Thomas headed in the 1980s, “is very disturbed by what appears to be a pattern of assault on Black elected officials.”
Sweeney’s letter also asserts that if someone is given the District 10 post, the Council should specify that “the appointment is temporary pending the outcome of the trial.”
Ridley-Thomas was elected to a post on the City Council in 1991 before moving on the state legislature, and then serving three terms on the County Board of Supervisors. He returned to the City Council in 2020 with many believing he would run for mayor of Los Angeles. Last September he announced he would not seek to succeed a termed-out Eric Garcetti.
The council has in the past appointed voting members to occupy open council seats. In 2019, former Councilman Greig Smith was named an interim voting member, representing District 12 after Councilman Mitch Englander resigned. Englander, like District 14 Councilman José Huizar, would eventually get caught up in another federal investigation. The council voted to suspend Huizar shortly after his June 2020 arrest, and his successor, Kevin de León, was allowed to take the oath of office two months early so as to afford representation to the district (Englander was sentenced to prison. Huizar is awaiting trial).
Martinez told the Sentinel that she would continue to meet with District 10 representatives before making any appointment. The full council would need to approve installing someone in Ridley-Thomas’ spot.
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. news, food, and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.