L.A. City Council votes to suspend Mark Ridley-Thomas amid federal charges

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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)
City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, shown in 2020, has denied wrongdoing following his indictment on federal bribery and other charges. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles City Council doesn't have the power to fire any of the 15 members who represent L.A.'s 4 million residents.

But the government body can bar members from doing their job. And for the second time in less than two years, the City Council on Wednesday suspended one of its own.

The council voted 11 to 3 to immediately suspend Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, a veteran South Los Angeles politician who has been indicted on federal bribery, conspiracy and other charges. Hours later, city officials announced he would no longer receive his $223,800 salary.

It was another dispiriting day at City Hall, which has been rocked by a series of scandals over alleged corruption. In June 2020, the council suspended then-Councilman Jose Huizar after he was charged with a racketeering count in an alleged pay-to-play scheme.

Both Ridley-Thomas and Huizar are fighting the charges against them.

The emotional tenor of Wednesday’s council deliberations was markedly different from the unanimous vote to suspend Huizar.

Some councilmembers urged their colleagues against suspension, arguing that the council shouldn't play the part of a jury and that the councilman hadn't publicly detailed his defense.

Councilman Bob Blumenfield told his colleagues that he was "up all night, tossing and turning" about the vote, which he called "terrible."

“I have to vote yes on the suspension," said Blumenfield, who represents the western San Fernando Valley. "But I don't want to. And I really don't want to even have this come up."

Federal prosecutors allege that Ridley-Thomas, while serving on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, conspired with Marilyn Louise Flynn, former dean of USC’s School of Social Work, to steer county money to the university. In return, Ridley-Thomas' son Sebastian was admitted to USC's graduate school and given a full-tuition scholarship and a paid professorship, prosecutors allege.

The 20-count indictment includes charges of conspiracy, bribery, mail fraud and wire fraud.

In his first court appearance since he was indicted last week, Ridley-Thomas pleaded not guilty Wednesday. The councilman appeared by video from the office of his lawyer, Michael Proctor.

U.S. Magistrate Rozella A. Oliver allowed Ridley-Thomas to remain free on a $50,000 bond until his trial, which is scheduled to start Dec. 14.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Ruth C. Pinkel told the magistrate that Ridley-Thomas faces “very serious charges” and poses “an economic danger to the community," but Oliver rejected prosecutors’ requests to require the councilman to post a $100,000 bond and bar him from transferring assets worth more than $10,000 without permission from the court’s pretrial services office.

Since the indictment was announced, Ridley-Thomas has publicly railed against the charges. He said Friday that he wouldn't resign. Days later, he informed his colleagues that he would "step back" from his council duties but keep serving his district.

When it became apparent that the council was considering the more punitive action of suspending him, Ridley-Thomas’ lawyer Proctor warned the council and City Atty. Mike Feuer in a letter Wednesday morning that a suspension would be "unlawful."

Proctor wrote that the charges involve allegations that took place when Ridley-Thomas was a county supervisor, so the council has no grounds to suspend him.

The motion to consider suspension "is not just rash, it is without legal basis,” Proctor wrote in the letter obtained by The Times. “Simply put, there are no allegations that involve Councilmember Ridley-Thomas’ work as a city official."

Asked by The Times on Wednesday whether he had contacted his colleagues about the prospect of being suspended, Ridley-Thomas replied through a spokeswoman that he had. He declined to say whom he had been talking to before the vote.

Councilmen Mike Bonin, Curren Price and Marqueece Harris-Dawson voted against Ridley-Thomas' suspension. Ridley-Thomas was not at the meeting and did not vote.

Speaking during the hearing, Harris-Dawson said the charges facing Ridley-Thomas were “qualitatively different” from those against Huizar. The details alleged in Huizar's case — which included cash and gambling trips — were salacious, Harris-Dawson suggested.

Price said the charges against Ridley-Thomas "don't even stem from his service here as a councilperson."

"We can't take a stance just based on allegations," Price said. "It's just not fair."

Councilman Kevin de Leόn told The Times after the vote that the council had established a precedent when it voted unanimously to suspend Huizar.

"We cannot go down the slippery slope of applying different rules to different people based on the perceived gravity of an alleged crime," De Leόn said.

Ridley-Thomas is the third L.A. City Council member to face federal corruption charges over the last two years. Huizar is awaiting trial on racketeering, bribery, money laundering and other charges.

In a related case, former Councilman Mitchell Englander was sentenced to 14 months in prison 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' suspension means he is effectively barred from doing his job: He can't attend council and committee meetings, execute contracts, use discretionary funds or engage in constituent services.

In addition to cutting off his salary, City Controller Ron Galperin stopped his healthcare and other benefits on Wednesday.

Ridley-Thomas' employees can continue to work for the city, however.

In a statement after the vote, Ridley-Thomas said the council had “disenfranchised the residents of the 10th District."

"Eleven 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," Ridley-Thomas said.

In a series of tweets before Wednesday's vote, Ridley-Thomas' wife, Avis Ridley-Thomas, targeted the council for the proposed suspension.

"Why are you trying to punish my husband before he can defend against lies?" she wrote in a tweet Tuesday night directed at Council President Nury Martinez and Councilman Mitch O'Farrell. "Why rush to judgment? Treat him with the same fairness, respect and decency you would want. #DoTheRightThing"

Ridley-Thomas was first elected to the council in 1991, after 10 years as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles. He also served in the state Legislature and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors before returning to the council in December.

Prosecutors allege Ridley-Thomas misused his power as a supervisor in 2017 and 2018 to steer county contracts to USC in return for university payments to his son.

The indictment also alleges that Ridley-Thomas helped concoct a scheme to funnel $100,000 from one of his campaign committees through the university to a nonprofit where his son would work.

Mayor Eric Garcetti supported the council's suspension of Ridley-Thomas on Wednesday, said spokesman Alex Comisar.

Times staff writer Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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