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Thursday, October 21, 2021

Mark Ridley-Thomas and ex-USC dean indicted in bribery case

Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas was indicted Wednesday on federal charges he took bribes from a USC dean in exchange for directing millions of dollars in public funding to the university when he was on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

Ridley-Thomas is accused of conspiring with Marilyn Louise Flynn, who at the time was dean of USC’s School of Social Work, to steer county money to the university in return for admitting his son Sebastian into the graduate school with a full-tuition scholarship and a paid professorship.

A 20-count grand jury indictment alleges that Flynn and Ridley-Thomas also concocted a scheme to funnel $100,000 from one of his campaign committees through the university to a nonprofit where his son would work.

Ridley-Thomas, 66, one of the most powerful figures in Los Angeles politics, is the third L.A. City Council member to face federal corruption charges over the last two years. He and Flynn each face charges of conspiracy, bribery, mail and wire fraud.

The alleged kickback scheme is the latest in a string of scandals that have marred USC’s reputation in recent years. Its former medical school dean was exposed as a user of methamphetamine, heroin and other drugs, and the longtime campus gynecologist was accused of sexual misconduct by hundreds of alumnae, leading to a $1.1 billion settlement, the largest sex abuse payout in higher education history.

USC was also the epicenter of the college-admissions bribery scandal in which wealthy parents paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to have their children falsely admitted as athletes.

“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. Atty. Tracy L. Wilkison said. “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.”

Ridley-Thomas could not be reached. Michael J. Proctor, his attorney, did not respond to a request for comment.

Flynn’s attorney, Vicki I. Podberesky, said her client “has not committed any crime and we believe that the evidence in this case will ultimately support this conclusion.” She 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.”

In a statement, a USC spokesperson said university officials have been cooperating with federal investigators since the summer of 2018 when they learned of the $100,000 payment Ridley-Thomas and Flynn allegedly orchestrated and notified prosecutors. Flynn stopped working for the university in September that year, the statement said.

The indictment comes three years after The Times revealed that USC had provided a scholarship to Sebastian Ridley-Thomas and appointed him as a professor around the time that then-Supervisor Ridley-Thomas had funneled campaign money through the university that ended up in a nonprofit group run by his son.

The Times reported that USC alerted federal prosecutors to the unusual arrangement following an internal investigation. It also described the intense budget pressure Flynn was under at the time of the alleged scheme with Ridley-Thomas in large part because of her embrace of online degree programs.

Under her tenure as dean, USC’s social work program became the largest in the world, exploding from an enrollment of 900 in 2010 to 3,500 in 2016.

That growth, however, was achieved largely through a partnership with a digital learning startup that received more than half of the roughly $100,000 tuition that students paid for a master’s degree through the school’s online program. The profit-sharing required Flynn to aggressively raise money and seek government contracts to increase revenue.

To fill the online ranks, the school began admitting less qualified students, who sometimes struggled to do the work and who ultimately drove down the rankings of the once prestigious program. In 2019, USC was forced to lay off social work professors and staff.

Shortly before the indictment was made public, Ridley-Thomas spoke with a Times reporter about a new homelessness policy, which he had been integral in drafting. He gave no indication that anything was amiss and said he’d be attending an event for the mayoral campaign of Rep. Karen Bass this weekend.

Federal authorities will allow Ridley-Thomas to voluntarily surrender, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Flynn’s attorney said she too will surrender.

The indictment’s political repercussions were immediate. City Councilman Joe Buscaino, who is also running for mayor, called on Ridley-Thomas to resign, saying he was “shocked, saddened, and disgusted” by the bribery charges.

“These charges tarnish the reputation of the entire L.A. City Council,” he said.

The council has been mired in corruption scandals. Former L.A. Councilman Jose Huizar is awaiting trial on racketeering, bribery, money laundering and other charges. Prosecutors allege he headed up a criminal enterprise involving multiple real estate developers looking to build projects in his downtown district when he was on the council. Huizar has pleaded not guilty and is seeking to have many of the charges dismissed.

In a related case, former Councilman Mitchell Englander is serving a 14-month prison sentence after pleading guilty to lying to federal authorities about cash and other gifts that he received in casinos in Las Vegas and near Palm Springs.

Ridley-Thomas was first elected to the City Council in 1991, following ten years as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles. Over the subsequent three decades, he went to serve in the state legislature and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, before returning to the council in December.

Ridley-Thomas has been one of the most prominent figures in addressing the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles. In 2017, he was a leader in the campaign to pass Measure H — a quarter-cent sales tax increase that would fund housing and support for thousands of people currently living on the streets.

LA City Council President Nury Martinez said she was “disappointed” to hear of the Ridley-Thomas indictment. “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 said.

This is a developing story.

Times Staff Writers Ben Oreskes, Dakota Smith and David Zahniser contributed to this report.

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