A son's troubles, financial desperation brought USC dean, Mark Ridley-Thomas together

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SACRAMENTO, CALIF. -- THURSDAY, JULY 9, 2015: Assemblymember Sebastian Ridleyâ€"Thomas talks to fellow lawmakers at the Statehouse Capitol, in Sacramento, Calif., on July 9, 2015. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Assembly member Sebastian Ridley-Thomas talks to fellow lawmakers at the Statehouse Capitol in Sacramento. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

They seemed to have little in common. Sebastian Ridley-Thomas was a 30-year-old assemblyman from South Los Angeles trying to find his way out of his father’s towering political shadow. Marilyn Flynn, a widow five decades his senior, was a University of Southern California dean with a national reputation for training social workers.

But four years ago, a shared desperation about money and careers drove the pair together and ultimately into what authorities alleged was a criminal conspiracy led by one of Southern California’s preeminent powerbrokers.

L.A. Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, then a county supervisor, steered government contracts worth millions to USC to help Flynn shore up her financially shaky social work school, according to the indictment unsealed this week.

In return she offered his son, grappling with personal debt and a sexual harassment investigation, a faculty appointment and a graduate school scholarship, prosecutors allege.

The bribery and corruption charges offer further testament to how USC’s aspirations to prominence fueled an obsession with fundraising and money and a lack of oversight that has led repeatedly to scandal, from a drug-using medical school dean to wealthy parents cheating the admissions process.

The indictment suggests that Ridley-Thomas, an alumnus with longstanding ties to USC leaders, understood the pressures Flynn was under to bring in new revenue, and she in turn regarded the windfall of the government money he could deliver as the way to keep her job.

The evidence includes bank transfers, flouted university policies, a chain of emails from nongovernment accounts and procurement votes in the supervisors’ chambers. But the case laid out by federal prosecutors appears at its heart a story about the lengths people will go to sustain their ambitions and reputations, and those of their loved ones.

“The whole situation is tragic,” said veteran Democratic Party strategist Robert Shrum, a longtime Ridley-Thomas friend and a politics professor at USC. “I have no idea what he will do, and I assume that he, like everyone else, should be regarded as innocent until proven guilty.”

Ridley-Thomas’ defense attorney, Michael J. Proctor, said in a statement Thursday that his client “was shocked” by the “wrong” allegations in the indictment.

“At no point in his career as an elected official — not as a member of the City Council, the state Legislature, or the Board of Supervisors — has he abused his position for personal gain,” Proctor said in the statement. “Over those 30 years, he has demonstrated the quality of his character.”

Mark Ridley-Thomas, member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for the 2nd District
Mark Ridley-Thomas, member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for the 2nd District, welcomes arrival of additional 10 trailers at Safe Landing for Families in Los Angeles. Trailers are sent by Gov. Gavin Newsom to aid homeless families in South Los Angeles. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Neither he nor Flynn has entered a plea in connection to the charges.

“They have decided to charge an 83-year-old woman who didn't receive a dime,” said Flynn’s lawyer, Vicki I. Podberesky, who added in a statement: “Ms. Flynn has not committed any crime and we believe that the evidence in this case will ultimately support this conclusion."

Though Ridley-Thomas said he never pushed his son into politics, he took obvious joy in 2013 when Sebastian, then 26, was elected as one of the youngest members of the Assembly. The date, he told the Los Angeles Sentinel newspaper, would be remembered for decades, saying, “This is the beginning of the next stage of leadership.”

While the father had steadily risen through Sacramento and then to the Board of Supervisors, his son seemed to have difficulty finding his footing. He struggled with chronic health problems that he never detailed publicly but said required five surgeries, and according to prosecutors, he amassed unspecified debts that ran into the tens of thousands of dollars.

Late in 2017, the #MeToo movement prompted a wave of sexual harassment complaints against Sacramento lawmakers. Sebastian Ridley-Thomas was the subject of two complaints. Though the reports weren’t yet public, investigators were questioning witnesses and information began to leak.

Emails cited in the indictment show that Sebastian Ridley-Thomas forwarded his father a press release Dec. 4 of that year describing the ongoing probe of a fellow lawmaker, and he included the message, “rumors are another Los Angeles Legislator is next.” Five days later, his father sent him a link of a blogpost speculating that “the Next #MeToo to Go” may be Sebastian.

The elder Ridley-Thomas knew the state’s political world better than most, and he concluded his son was going to have to resign, according to the indictment. He wanted “to secure paid employment for [his son] following [his] abrupt departure from the state Assembly,” the indictment details. He and his son were looking for “a stable income,” but also “to minimize any damage to” both of their reputations that the sudden flight from Sacramento might cause.

He turned to Flynn at USC.

Since earning his doctorate in social ethics there, the elder Ridley-Thomas remained close to his alma mater, among L.A.’s largest private employers and an engine of economic growth in the neighborhoods that formed his political districts.

He knew Flynn, who had headed the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work since 1997, in part through her work on serving at-risk families and mental healthcare access. In the wake of the death of Gabriel Fernandez, she was one of his appointees to the blue ribbon commission that examined failures in the Department of Children and Family Services. Flynn was also a reliable campaign donor, giving nearly $5,000 to Mark Ridley-Thomas from 2015 to 2017, according to filings.

The elder Ridley-Thomas’ overture came at a time when Flynn was confronting financial problems at the school. In that period, then-President C.L. Max Nikias was conducting a $6-billion fundraising drive, and deans like Flynn were expected to help. Raising that sort of money from an alumni base of social workers was a tall order, but Flynn had found what seemed to be a lucrative line of revenue from online degree programs.

At first, the arrangement with a company called 2U worked so well that Flynn was doing testimonials for investors, but eventually it became an albatross. USC was saddled with pricey downtown office leases and salaries for a raft of new teachers for the virtual program, and the university had to split the tuition money with 2U. The economics demanded constant growth and enrollment ballooned until USC was the largest social work program in the country. Student quality declined, rankings fell and an enormous hole opened in the social work school’s operating budget.

The school would ultimately be forced to lay off nearly 30 staff and slash spending. At the time Mark Ridley-Thomas contacted Flynn, prosecutors allege, the school’s existence was threatened as were her deanship and reputation in the social work field. (A 2U spokesperson disputed that its partnership with USC contributed to the social work school’s financial problems.)

Sebastian Ridley-Thomas first reached out to Flynn for help, blind copying his father, but the indictment suggests the dean only jumped to attention three days later after receiving an email from the supervisor about a contract amendment that she hoped would generate $9 million annually. The contract, which provided telehealth services, is one of several cited by prosecutors. In his email, Mark Ridley-Thomas said an unnamed L.A. County official was “ready to go” followed by a winking emoji, according to court papers.

Mark Ridley-Thomas
Mark Ridley-Thomas (Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Within an hour of receiving the news, Flynn had contacted multiple USC officials about Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, explaining who his father was and saying his admission should be given the “highest priority,” according to the indictment.

Despite the social work school’s financial woes, she quickly arranged for him to receive a full scholarship, with a value of $26,000, by tapping into what she said were endowed funds, the indictment states.

The younger Ridley-Thomas had previously floated the idea of a paid position as a “practitioner-in-residence” to university officials, suggesting a starting salary in the range of $25,000, and Flynn embraced the idea. She urged colleagues to draw up an employment contract before the holidays “in the interests of showing MRT that we can deliver.”

The first week of January, there still wasn’t an offer and Sebastian Ridley-Thomas emailed his father an accounting of his "significant debt," according to the indictment. The next day his father contacted Flynn. The son subsequently was hired — without the usual vetting — for $50,000 a year, prosecutors said.

As the $9-million contract wound toward approval through the first half of 2018, Flynn reminded Mark Ridley-Thomas of her “extremely important request,” according to court papers.

He replied, “Your wish is my command," and blind copied his son, according to the indictment.

For her part, Flynn reassured a USC official the vote on the contract would go the university’s way but added that she had had to do a “favor” to seal the deal, according to the indictment. The official reported that Flynn had winked when she mentioned the "favor," court papers say.

As the vote on the contract was still pending, Mark Ridley-Thomas was trying to discreetly move $100,000 from one of his political groups to a newly formed nonprofit that would pay an additional salary to his son, according to the indictment. A previous attempt to route the money through a local nonprofit failed when the organization grew uncomfortable with the “nepotistic optics,” and refunded the money, according to the indictment.

Flynn was more than willing to help, according to the indictment, even stepping in to personally assist the elder Ridley-Thomas late one night when it appeared there might be a hiccup in the transfer.

“I will let people know this must be expedited,” she wrote to him at 10:27 pm in early May 2018.

After she told him the money was on its way, he responded, “I repeat: You’re the best!!!”

A whistleblower noted the financial transfer and alerted university officials, who launched an internal investigation. USC informed federal prosecutors and eventually fired Sebastian Ridley-Thomas. Flynn was removed as dean and later left the university.

A few weeks after his son was terminated, Ridley-Thomas and the supervisors approved the $9-million contract that Flynn had sought.

Times staff writer Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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