Los Angeles City Council Votes To Suspend Mark Ridley-Thomas As He Faces Federal Corruption Charges
Despite protests from community allies and a vigorous defense by some colleagues, the Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday voted 11-3 to suspend Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas, barring him from voting on items, spending his office’s discretionary funds, or providing constituent services.
Ridley-Thomas is facing federal bribery charges related to his work on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. The allegations became public in a 35-page indictment unveiled last week.
Warning against a “rush to judgment,” councilmembers Mike Bonin and Curren Price tried to head off the vote, arguing it should first go through a council committee.
“We are acting … too early without consideration of our full range of options and with too much uncertainty before us,” Bonin said. “The allegations are only a week old.”
Bonin said the council had only heard “one side of the matter … and that would be a conviction without evidence … and without due process.”
Councilmember Curren Price agreed, and pointed out the wrongdoing alleged in the Ridley-Thomas indictment did not relate to city council action.
“We should treat our colleague with a three-decade history of service to the community ... with the respect he deserves and which the law requires,” Price said.
“Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas has a right to due process, and that should take place in a court of law, not in these council chambers.” Price later continued. “I refuse to slaughter the reputation of someone who has a [long] track record of public service.”
Members of the council who stood up for Ridley-Thomas sought to separate the federal charges from corruption cases against former councilmembers Jose Huizar, who is awaiting trial, and Mitch Englander, who pleaded guilty and is serving out his sentence.
“There’s no money hidden in walls and trips to Vegas and gambling on the other side of the earth,” said Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson. “Nothing close to that in this case. I resent this idea that you compare one indictment to another.”
The vote is “unsettling, unseemly and unnecessary,” added Harris-Dawson. “All our vote does today is make sure a 67-year old man doesn’t have healthcare and doesn’t have income during the toughest fight of his life.”
Earlier this week, L.A. City Controller Ron Galperin said he would cut off Ridley-Thomas’ city salary if the council voted to suspend him. Members of the city council make more than $200,000 annually.
Following the vote, Ridley-Thomas issued this statement: “I am humbled by the support of my colleagues who did not rush to judgement and disappointed in those who did. 11 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. They have removed from action a member — and his team — who together are among the most productive and effective advocates on the crisis of homelessness. I will continue fighting to clear my name, and I remain confident that such will be the case. But in the interim, the council has disenfranchised the residents of the 10th District.”
“It’s painful, because these accusations are very serious,” councilmember Bob Blumenfield said. “If proven true, he is going to be punished, and should be punished. Someone who is under that kind of indictment can’t function in this body.”
“The ink is still drying. We’re trying to figure it out,” Blumenfield said. “All that being said … I have to vote yes on the suspension. But I don’t want to.”
“This is not an easy vote. It’s a terrible vote,” Blumenfield added.
On Monday, Ridley-Thomas said he planned to step back from attending council meetings or casting votes, but would remain on the council.
The indictment, unveiled last week, details federal prosecutors’ corruption case: As a member of the powerful L.A. County Board of Supervisors from 2008-2020, Ridley-Thomas allegedly funneled lucrative contracts to USC’s school of social work in exchange for a teaching job and full ride scholarship for his son, Sebastian. He stepped down from the state Assembly in 2017 ahead of sexual harassment complaints that were later substantiated by an outside investigation.
Ridley-Thomas appeared by remote before a federal judge on Wednesday and entered a plea of not guilty. He remains free on a $50,000 bond and his trial is set to begin on Dec. 14.
His former colleagues on the L.A County Board of Supervisors acted on Tuesday to start the process of hiring an outside law firm to investigate any contracts involved in the federal case, as well as all high-value contracts approved by the county since 2012.
But the city council vote may soon face a lawsuit.
In a letter dated Wednesday and addressed to City Attorney Mike Feuer, a lawyer for Ridley-Thomas argued Martinez’s motion was illegal, because the federal allegations are not related to his work on the city council.
“The charges concern alleged actions that significantly predate his election to the City Council,” attorney Michael J. Proctor wrote. “Suspending him would be an unlawful act by the Council, and would be immediately subject to challenge in court.”
While Ridley-Thomas would not cast votes in the shadow of federal prosecution, Proctor said, he intended to stay on the council while the legal process proceeds, “respectfully” weigh in on policy decisions that impact the 10th District, and fulfill constituent service requests and oversee community development projects.
Some Ridley-Thomas allies voiced opposition to the city council’s motion, calling it a politically calculated move to score points when more than half of its members are either up for re-election or running for Mayor in 2022.
“Mark Ridley-Thomas has been a pillar of the community for decades, as well as a role model,” Najee Ali, director of the South L.A. civil rights organization, Project Islamic Hope, said in an interview with LAist. “The indictment was just mind-blowing. But he is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.”
Ridley-Thomas was termed out of his county seat in 2020 and returned to the L.A. City Council, where he had served from 1991-2002. He also served in the state assembly and senate.
Ali said he has known Ridley-Thomas to be a “champion” for the South L.A. community for more than 30 years: “We are simply saying, let his leadership continue until he has his day in court."