Former USC dean admits to arranging bribery payment for Mark Ridley-Thomas

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mark ridley thomas
Mark Ridley-Thomas is suspended from the Los Angeles City Council while he awaits trial on federal bribery, fraud and conspiracy charges. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

A former USC dean agreed Thursday to plead guilty to bribery, admitting that she arranged an illicit $100,000 payment for Mark Ridley-Thomas when he was on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in return for a USC contract with the county.

Marilyn Flynn, 83, who was dean of USC's School of Social Work from 1997 to 2018, struck a plea agreement with federal prosecutors that was signed Thursday and filed in court the same day.

Her admission of guilt strikes a major blow to Ridley-Thomas, now a Los Angeles city councilman who has been suspended while he defends against federal charges of bribery, fraud and conspiracy.

Ridley-Thomas is scheduled to go on trial in November, and it was not immediately clear whether Flynn would testify against him. The plea agreement does not contain a requirement for her to cooperate, and her defense attorneys, Vicki Podberesky and Brian Hennigan, did not return messages seeking comment.

Flynn's plea also reduces the likelihood that evidence related to Rep. Karen Bass, the front-runner in the race for L.A. mayor, would get a public airing at trial.

The Times reported last week that prosecutors had examined Bass' receipt of a full scholarship from Flynn in 2011, during her first term in office, and had considered it "critical" to showing Flynn's corrupt intent. Prosecutors noted that Flynn had provided "input" on legislation to Bass, who later proposed a bill that would have given USC and other private universities greater access to federal funds for social work — "just as defendant Flynn wanted," according to court papers.

With only Ridley-Thomas on trial this year, it is unclear how or whether prosecutors would introduce evidence unrelated to his conduct.

The charge to which Flynn has agreed to plead guilty carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in federal prison, but prosecutors agreed to recommend that she be confined to her home in Los Feliz and fined no more than $150,000.

As part of the plea agreement, Flynn admitted to a complex bribery scheme that involved funneling $100,000 from a Ridley-Thomas campaign committee through USC in 2018.

Once the $100,000 arrived, Flynn almost immediately had USC transfer the money to United Ways of California, a nonprofit that was sponsoring a newly formed organization run by the supervisor's son, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas.

Neither Ridley-Thomas nor his son ever received the money personally. Flynn's plea agreement confirms that the money was to be used to hire an employee at Sebastian Ridley-Thomas' new initiative, which he joined after abruptly resigning as a state assemblyman following a sexual harassment investigation.

Flynn acknowledged that she arranged to route the money through USC in return for Ridley-Thomas' support of a county contract with the School of Social Work to provide online mental health services to patients referred by the county.

According to the timeline in court papers, Flynn told Ridley-Thomas on May 8, 2018, that the $100,000 had been "cleared" and would be "overnight mailed" to his son's group. Two days later — at a meeting set up by Ridley-Thomas — Flynn met with an L.A. County official regarding the mental health contract that she sought.

The next day, when the $100,000 payment was delivered, Ridley-Thomas told Flynn over email he wanted to talk about "master contract stuff" and "somehow use yesterday's 'discussion' to advance it." The email ended with a "winking face" emoji, according to the plea agreement.

Galia Amram, a defense attorney for Ridley-Thomas, told The Times in a statement that the plea deal “makes a number of erroneous assumptions — specifically where [Flynn] alleges an understanding as to what Mr. Ridley-Thomas understood or thought."

"Mr. Ridley-Thomas is innocent of the charges levied against him," Amram said. "We look forward to his day in court to clear his good name.”

Flynn is expected to formally enter her plea in court in coming weeks.

Her acknowledgment of guilt marks an ignominious end to a decades-long career. Until her ouster as dean, revelations of financial problems at the School of Social Work, and involvement in a federal corruption case, Flynn was regarded as a visionary in her field who had made USC the largest social work program in the world.

She cultivated ties with political leaders in the region and hosted county officials for dinner at her well-appointed home near the foot of Griffith Park. After the high-profile abuse death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez in Palmdale, she served on the blue ribbon commission tasked with assessing the child welfare system's failures.

She summed up her view of the profession in a 2014 lecture at USC.

"I think of social work as the force that makes the economy a society, and that as the economy grows, social work ensures that those who are at the bottom — those who are disregarded, those who are forgotten — rise in their sense of opportunity and prospect along with the rest," Flynn said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.