Editorial: Indicted on bribery charges, Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas should step down

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LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 03: Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas speaks to the press after casting his vote at Hot and Cool Cafe in Leimert Park on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020 in Los Angeles, CA. Mark Ridley-Thomas is running against attorney Grace Yoo for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council that is vacated by Councilman Herb Wesson. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas was indicted on federal conspiracy, bribery and fraud charges on Wednesday. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Another Los Angeles City Council member indicted for corruption? Chicago, Philadelphia and other big cities notorious for badly behaving elected officials apparently can’t keep up with L.A.

On Wednesday, Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas became the third council member to be charged with corruption in the last two years, according to an indictment released by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Last year, Councilman Jose Huizar and former Councilman Mitch Englander were indicted as part of an ongoing federal corruption investigation into city officials and real estate developers.

Huizar, accused of being the mastermind of a sprawling pay-to-play scheme, is awaiting trial on racketeering, bribery, money laundering and other charges. Englander pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators and is serving a 14-month sentence at a federal prison in Arizona.

Ridley-Thomas is accused of a bribery scheme with a USC dean while he was on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

The indictment alleges that during the fall of 2017, Ridley-Thomas knew his son, then-Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, was under investigation for complaints of sexual harassment and he would probably resign from the Legislature. Ridley-Thomas allegedly sought to have a paying job lined up for Sebastian because the son was tens of thousands of dollars in debt and the abrupt resignation could damage the father’s public image.

Ridley-Thomas is accused of conspiring with Marilyn Louise Flynn, who at the time was dean of the USC’s School of Social Work, to steer county contracts to the school in return for admitting Sebastian into the graduate school with a full-tuition scholarship and a paid professorship. The school was facing a multimillion-dollar deficit at the time, which threatened the school’s viability and the dean’s position, according the U.S. attorney’s office.

The allegation involves a serious abuse of the public trust. Most county contracts — except the very largest — are awarded by the staff according to strict criteria, but supervisors can influence the outcomes by applying undue pressure on the staff.

The indictment alleges that Flynn also agreed to help funnel $100,000 from Ridley-Thomas’ campaign funds through the university to a nonprofit organization operated by his son. That donation raised red flags at USC, prompting the university to alert federal prosecutors, The Times reported in 2018.

Can an elected official remain in office while under accusation of a criminal offense? An accusation is not, after all, a conviction, and the charges still must be proved. Ridley-Thomas should have the right to respond to the charges and present his defense. Ridley-Thomas' attorney said the councilman is shocked by the charges and has not abused his position for personal gain. Flynn's attorney has said she committed no crime.

But a federal indictment is not just any accusation. Ridley-Thomas faces formal charges handed up by a grand jury after a years-long investigation. Ridley-Thomas will be accorded the right to defend himself against the charge in court. But it’s hard to see how he could continue serving on the City Council effectively and without being a disruptive influence. He should resign.

The series of corruption cases in Los Angeles damages the public’s already fragile trust in government. Ridley-Thomas is one of the longest serving elected officials in Los Angeles, with an impressive record of achievement. Observers sometimes bristled at the way Ridley-Thomas wielded power, generally because he was so good at it. He is deliberate and tactical. He accrued power and he used it, most often to lift up the low-income communities of color that he has served over the years.

Ridley-Thomas has been a powerful and persuasive voice on housing homeless people. His departure would mean losing the council member most able to persuade others to put shelter and housing before enforcement.

That's why the federal charges are devastating for him and his constituents. Nonetheless, it's clear that Ridley-Thomas must step down.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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