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Criminal Justice

Federal Prosecutors Indict Mark Ridley-Thomas, Former USC Dean On Corruption Charges

Los Angeles City Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas is photographed in a headshot wearing a charcoal suit, blue shirt and tie.
L.A. City Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas.
(Paul Redmond/Getty Images)
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Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas and Marilyn Flynn, the former dean of the USC School of Social Work, have been indicted on federal corruption charges.

Federal prosecutors allege that when Ridley-Thomas was an L.A. County Supervisor he backed county contracts and lucrative contract amendments while one of his relatives got substantial benefits from USC in exchange.

Ridley-Thomas' lawyer has denied the allegations, calling them "wrong." Flynn's lawyer said she "has not committed any crime."

The 20-count indictment was filed in federal court in Los Angeles. It accuses Ridley-Thomas of conspiring with Flynn to provide his relative with grad school admission, a full-tuition scholarship and a paid professorship.

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The indictment traces the scheme to 2017 and 2018, saying Ridley-Thomas sought help from USC "to benefit his close relative" at a time when the relative "was the subject of an internal sexual harassment investigation in the California State Assembly, likely to resign from elected office, and significantly in debt."

The indictment does not name the relative, but Ridley-Thomas' son Sebastian resigned from the State Assembly in Dec. 2017 following allegations of sexual harassment against him by two Assembly employees.

An outside investigator later substantiated the allegations.

The younger Ridley-Thomas, who denied any wrongdoing, went on a few months later to become a professor of social work and public policy at USC.

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva responded immediately on Twitter to the news. "This is why a Public Corruption Unit must exist outside of the influence of the @LACountyBOS," he said.

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A 'Quid Pro Quo' Documented In A Letter

As part of the bribery scheme, Ridley-Thomas, 66, and Flynn, 83, allegedly took steps "to disguise, conceal, and cover up the bribes, kickbacks, and other benefits" Ridley-Thomas and his son received, according to the U.S. Attorney's statement.

It said Ridley-Thomas and Flynn allegedly reached a "quid pro quo agreement" at a June 2017 meeting, a deal Flynn "later memorialized in a confidential letter she had hand-delivered to Ridley-Thomas."

Flynn’s letter "detailed her expectations that Ridley-Thomas would steer new contracts with DCFS and Probation to the Social Work School and secure a lucrative amendment to an existing Telehealth-DMH contract," the statement continued.

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"With the new amendment, Flynn expected the Telehealth contract to generate approximately $9 million per year for Flynn’s Social Work School," it said.

At the time Ridley-Thomas and Flynn were working out their agreement, the School of Social Work was facing a multimillion-dollar budget deficit, "which threatened the school’s viability as well as Flynn’s position and reputation as the school’s longtime dean," according to the statement.

The indictment alleges that Flynn and Ridley-Thomas also concocted a scheme to funnel $100,000 from one of his campaign committees through the university to a nonprofit where his son would work, the U.S. Attorney's office said.

Michael Proctor, Ridley-Thomas' lawyer, issued a statement Thursday in which he said the councilmember "was shocked by the federal allegations leveled against him, and with good reason. They are wrong, and we look forward to disproving them."

Proctor went on: "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."

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In a statement Thursday, Flynn's lawyer Vicki Podberesky said Flynn "has not committed any crime and we believe that the evidence in this case will ultimately support this conclusion."

USC issued a statement Wednesday saying when the school learned in the summer of 2018 about the alleged $100,000 payment, "the university disclosed the issue to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and has fully cooperated ever since." It noted that Flynn has not worked at USC since Sept. 2018, and that the university "will continue to cooperate with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and must limit comments because this is a pending criminal matter.”

'The Council Will Need To Take Appropriate Action'

City Council President Nury Martinez issued a statement saying she is “disappointed in the news that has come out this afternoon of federal bribery charges against Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas."

"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.

Councilmember and mayoral candidate Joe Buscaino issued a statement on Twitter saying he is "shocked, saddened, and disgusted" by the charges. He said the allegations "tarnish the reputation of the entire LA City Council, and because of that, Ridley-Thomas should immediately step down from his position."

Asked Thursday if Ridley-Thomas should resign, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti declined to state a position, saying the issue is “the city council’s prerogative.”

Both Ridley-Thomas and Flynn are charged with one count of conspiracy, and each defendant is charged with one count of bribery. The indictment also charges both defendants with two counts of “honest services” mail fraud and 15 counts of “honest services” wire fraud.

If convicted, Ridley-Thomas and Flynn could face many years in prison: The conspiracy count carries a maximum penalty of five years; bribery carries a maximum sentence of 10 years; and each mail fraud and wire fraud charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years.

Ridley-Thomas is the third current or former member of the city council to face corruption charges in the last three years.

The City Council suspended José Huizar last year after he was indicted on corruption charges.

Former Councilmember Mitch Englander is serving a 14-month sentence after he pleaded guilty to obstructing an FBI investigation into allegations of corruption against him.

This story has been updated.

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