Los Angeles’ political and community leaders were stunned by the corruption indictment handed down Wednesday against Mark Ridley-Thomas, one of the city’s best-known and longest-serving officials.
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 was on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors at the time. He was later elected to the City Council representing South Los Angeles.
Neither Ridley-Thomas nor his attorney has responded so far to requests for comment.
Wednesday’s announcement was a shocking development for a politician who has been an influential voice in city policy for three decades and an architect of regional policy on the homeless crisis.
A resident of Leimert Park, Ridley-Thomas was elected to the City Council in 1991, months after police were captured on video beating motorist Rodney King. In office, he fought for more rigorous oversight of the LAPD and pushed for the departure of then-Police Chief Daryl Gates.
After a stint in the state Legislature, Ridley-Thomas joined the Board of Supervisors, working to reopen Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital in Willowbrook, which had been shut down following years of mismanagement, and bring light rail to Crenshaw Boulevard and Los Angeles International Airport. He also championed initiatives to fight homelessness, including Measure H, which pays for rent subsidies, shelter beds and other services.
In August, he announced he would not run for mayor, saying the fight against homelessness was his “calling and focus.”
When state Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas resigned suddenly in December, it marked an abrupt halt to a promising political career.
“I will double down and lean in on that particular issue,” he said.
Hours before the indictment became public, a Times reporter spoke with Ridley-Thomas about a new homelessness policy, which he had been integral in drafting. During that call, the veteran politician gave no indication that anything was amiss. He said he planned to attend a campaign event for Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) this weekend.
Ridley-Thomas, 66, is the third L.A. City Council member to face federal corruption charges over the last two years. He and Flynn each face charges of conspiracy, bribery, mail and wire fraud.
Former Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander was arrested in March 2020 on charges of obstructing an investigation into cash and other gifts that he received in casinos in Las Vegas and near Palm Springs. He later pleaded guilty to a single charge of lying to federal authorities and was sentenced to 14 months in prison.
In June 2020, then-Councilman Jose Huizar was charged in a related corruption case, with prosecutors alleging he headed up a criminal enterprise that included racketeering, bribery, money laundering and other crimes involving multiple real estate developers looking to build in downtown. Huizar has pleaded not guilty and is seeking to have many of those charges dismissed.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, called the indictment a “devastating legal and community tragedy for L.A.’s Black electorate and his constituents.”
“Ridley-Thomas has been a one-man institution in Black politics, and in the Black community, for many, many years,” he said. “He’s got a lot of constituents, a lot of people, who look to him not just to be their representative — they see him as a political leader.”
Hutchinson urged city officials not to rush to judgment, saying “an indictment is not a conviction.”
Council President Nury Martinez signaled the council may indeed act.
In a statement, Martinez said she was disappointed by the news of the 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.
Councilman Joe Buscaino, currently running for mayor, offered even stronger words, saying he was “shocked, saddened and disgusted” by the indictment.
“These charges tarnish the reputation of the entire L.A. City Council, and because of that, Ridley-Thomas should immediately step down from his position,” Buscaino said on Twitter.
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 then-Supervisor Ridley-Thomas had funneled campaign money through the university that ended up in a nonprofit group run by his son.