The Takeaways From Mark Ridley-Thomas’ Indictment and Suspension

The city council’s move to suspend the veteran lawmaker sets the stage for a brutal fight

Last week, a veritable bombshell hit city hall when the Los Angeles branch of the U.S. Attorney’s office announced that Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas had been indicted by a federal grand jury on 20 criminal counts, including bribery and conspiracy. City hall hadn’t been rocked like this since, well, the last time a council member was hit with federal charges, in June 2020, when José Huizar was targeted as part of an investigation into government corruption tied to the real-estate-development industry.

The week since Ridley-Thomas’s indictment has generated more shocking, fast-moving twists than those in the first season of “Squid Game.” Heck, the affair has made people almost ignore another hugely important municipal happening—the ongoing, very messy city council redistricting process.

It’s hard to overstate just how important the case against the councilman is to the fabric of Los Angeles. Here are some things ponder about the United States of America v. Mark Ridley-Thomas.

The Latest, Part I

Ridley-Thomas was arraigned Wednesday afternoon and pleaded not guilty. The 35-page indictment alleges that he worked with then-USC School of Social Work dean Marilyn Louise Flynn on a scheme to admit the councilman’s son, former state assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, into the graduate school and provide him with a scholarship and a paid professorship. The insinuation is that a soft landing was arranged after the younger Ridley-Thomas resigned his seat. In return, the elder Ridley-Thomas, then a member of the powerful County Board of Supervisors, allegedly steered millions of dollars in county contracts to the school.
A trial date has been set for December 14. Expect delays.

The Latest, Part II

Elected officials know the public is wondering whether local government can be trusted. So although there was a 20-month gap between the time FBI agents raided Huizar’s city hall office in November 2018 and the day he was suspended by his colleagues on the city council, here the council waited only seven days after the indictment dropped to vote to suspend Ridley-Thomas.

The story has moved quickly. Ridley-Thomas on Monday said that he would “step back” from attending council and committee meetings, but that did not sway council president Nury Martinez, who on Tuesday announced a move to suspend Ridley-Thomas. On Wednesday, the council voted 11 to 3 to do so. Curren Price, Marqueece Harris-Dawson, and Mike Bonin, all in the minority, asked their compatriots to slow their roll and at least talk the options over in committee, but that didn’t happen; shortly after the council vote, Controller Ron Galperin announced he would suspend Ridley-Thomas’s pay, which works out to $223,829 annually.

Just minutes after the vote, Ridley-Thomas released a statement saying, “I am humbled by the support of my colleagues who did not rush to judgment and disappointed in those who did. 11 members of this Council have stripped the constituents of the 10th District of their representation, of their voice and of their right to the services that they deserve. They have removed from action a member—and his team—who together are among the most productive and effective advocates on the crisis of homelessness. I will continue fighting to clear my name, and I remain confident that such will be the case. But in the interim, the council has disenfranchised the residents of the 10th District.”

Towering Figure

Many have sought to equate Ridley-Thomas with Huizar and Mitch Englander, the two former council members ensnared in the FBI and Department of Justice’s sprawling Operation Casino Loyale investigation. Huizar is awaiting trial next summer, while Englander is serving a 14-month prison term after pleading guilty to one count.

But this isn’t just comparing apples to oranges—this is comparing apples no one wants to eat to huge oranges that dominate the city council fruit basket.

Ridley-Thomas has held elected office at the city, county, and state level for 30 years, and during that time he has engaged in some of the region’s most intense battles, scoring huge victories for communities he represents. Back in the 1990s, as a young city councilman, he fought for the ouster of then-LAPD Chief Daryl Gates, and pushed for police reform long before it was a buzzword. During his 12-year stint on the Board of Supervisors, he turned a defunct medical facility once known as “Killer King” into the Martin Luther King Jr.

Community Hospital, an anchor and economic catalyst for the Willowbrook neighborhood.
The guy doesn’t shy from a fight, as evidenced by his repeated tangles with wildcat sheriff Alex Villanueva. He is a skilled tactician who usually outthinks his opponents.

So don’t be surprised if Ridley-Thomas aggressively combats any council move to mute him. Even before the council vote, as the Los Angeles Times noted, his attorneys were sending signals that they would challenge efforts to suspend him, arguing that the alleged transgressions occurred while he worked for the county, not the city.

The Bigger Fight

Ridley-Thomas’s toughest battle will be with federal prosecutors, not the city council. The Department of Justice doesn’t make a move like this—indicting the region’s most accomplished Black politician since Tom Bradley—without believing it has a bulletproof case.

And the Feds don’t mess around—they’ll bring their A-team, operating on the belief that their witnesses and evidence will stand up at a jury trial, even when subjected to the top-notch legal squadron that Ridley-Thomas will surely hire.

Speaking of the Feds, some observers have surmised that they must have told Ridley-Thomas and his attorneys back in August that an indictment was coming, and this was why the longtime pol surprised many by saying he would not run for mayor. But the day after the indictment, Ridley-Thomas said he was “shocked” by the development, and one figure well-versed in federal-prosecution efforts said that that is likely true, and that the Department of Justice would not bother to inform or coordinate with Ridley-Thomas’s legal team before dropping its bomb.

The Ripples

The issues now include not just what happens to Ridley-Thomas, but how the indictment impacts the rest of Los Angeles. That starts with the effort to address homelessness. Suspending Ridley-Thomas means city government has lost someone with a particularly keen understanding not only of the complexity of the crisis, but of how multiple levels of government can respond. Ridley-Thomas previously helmed a state taskforce focused on the matter. Before Wednesday, he chaired the council’s Homelessness and Poverty Committee and was pushing Right to Housing legislation. His ties to county government—which provides health and mental services the city does not—are vital to a comprehensive response. Sure, many other smart people are active on the issue, but Ridley-Thomas has a unique depth of expertise.

Another ripple involves a different part of L.A.’s future—the mayoral race. Soon after Ridley-Thomas said he would not run, his longtime ally Karen Bass entered the contest. Ridley-Thomas was certain to be one of the guiding forces on the Congresswoman’s campaign, helping with everything from crafting her homelessness strategy to raising money. Bass has a more-than-capable campaign staff, but the microscope on Ridley-Thomas likely means the two can’t even speak.

Coming Up

The explosions of the past week likely portend, well, more explosions. The council will have to determine what to do with a void in District 10. The Feds will ready their case for trial.

Ridley-Thomas’s past indicates that he won’t back down. A fight has already broken out, but the bigger battles are to come.

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