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Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas was indicted Wednesday on federal charges that 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.
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. In a 20-count indictment, he and Flynn face charges of conspiracy, bribery and mail and wire fraud.
The alleged kickback scheme is the latest in a string of scandals that has 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 the history of higher education.
USC was also at the center 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, said the councilman was "shocked by the federal allegations leveled against him, and with good reason." "They are wrong, and we look forward to disproving them," Proctor said.
In his 30 years of holding elected office, Ridley-Thomas has never "abused his position for personal gain," he said.
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."
Flynn, 83, was dean for 21 years. The indictment says USC "removed" her from the position around June 2018.
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. Flynn stopped working for the university in September of 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 his father, while serving as a county supervisor, 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 after an internal investigation. It also described the intense budget pressure Flynn was under at the time of the alleged scheme with Mark 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, growing 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 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 members.
Shortly before the indictment was made public Wednesday, 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 (D-Los Angeles) 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 and a former deputy mayor who was indicted with him have pleaded not guilty and are 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, after 10 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.
He 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 living on the streets. In 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Ridley-Thomas as co-chair of a state task force on homelessness.
L.A. 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.
Hilda Solis, chair of the county Board of Supervisors, called for "a full and independent audit investigation into the alleged fraud, corruption, and misuse of public funds."
The indictment details how Ridley-Thomas allegedly misused his power as a supervisor in 2017 and 2018 to steer county contracts to USC in return for university payments to his son.
Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, now 34, was tens of thousands of dollars in debt at the time, according to the indictment, which identifies him only as “MRT Relative 1.” In December 2017, he resigned as a state assemblyman, citing unspecified health problems. In fact, he was under investigation for allegations of sexual harassment.
His father first approached Flynn in May 2017, telling her that his son was interested in getting a postgraduate degree at USC. Flynn soon told another university employee by email that she would “open every door” for Mark Ridley-Thomas’s son, according to the indictment.
Weeks later, Flynn told colleagues she was going to dinner with Ridley-Thomas and there were “significant amounts” of county funds available to USC, the indictment says. An unnamed USC official responded that Ridley-Thomas “has lots of discretionary money” and “should give us $1M each year for three years,” according to the indictment.
Flynn replied that she and another USC official were going to help the supervisor’s son get a master’s degree at the social work and public policy schools on “full scholarship” in exchange for county funds, the indictment says.
In July 2017, it says, Flynn told Ridley-Thomas in a private, hand-delivered letter what she expected in return for helping his son: new or amended contracts between USC’s School of Social Work and the county’s departments of probation, mental health, and Children and Family Services. USC provided training and other services to the county.
A few days later, Flynn told Ridley-Thomas' son he'd get a full-tuition scholarship, according to the indictment. Around the same time, Ridley-Thomas introduced a motion at a Board of Supervisors meeting recommending establishment of a new "partnership" with USC's School of Social Work, then voted in favor of it. The motion was approved.
In December 2017, prosecutors say, Ridley-Thomas told Flynn a key county official was "ready to go" with another USC contract. Within an hour, they say, Flynn emailed multiple USC officials about his son's scholarship, saying his admission to the university should be given "the highest priority."
Despite the social work school's multimillion-dollar deficit, Flynn agreed to "tap our endowed funds" to cover tuition for Ridley-Thomas' son, the indictment alleges. She also arranged for his son to get a paid professorship with a $50,000 annual salary, flagging the matter as "urgent" in one email to a colleague, it says.
The indictment also alleges that Flynn and Ridley-Thomas concocted a scheme to funnel $100,000 from one of his campaign committees through the university to a nonprofit where his son would work.
Times staff writers Jaclyn Cosgrove, Benjamin Oreskes, Dakota Smith and David Zahniser contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.