Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas and an ex-dean of USC’s School of Social Work were indicted Wednesday on federal corruption charges alleging a bribery scheme in which prosecutors say his son received substantial benefits from the university in exchange for the politician’s support of contracts while he served on the county Board of Supervisors.
The 20-count indictment filed in Los Angeles federal court alleges that Ridley-Thomas conspired with Marilyn Louise Flynn, who agreed to provide Ridley-Thomas’ son with graduate school admission, a full-tuition scholarship, a paid professorship and a mechanism to funnel $100,000 in Ridley-Thomas campaign funds through the university to a nonprofit to be operated by the family member.
In exchange, the indictment alleges, Ridley-Thomas supported contracts involving the School of Social Work, including contracts to provide services to the county Department of Children and Family Services and Probation Department, as well as an amendment to a contract with the Department of Mental Health that would bring the school millions of dollars in new revenue.
Ridley-Thomas, 66, of Los Angeles, and Flynn, 83, of Los Angeles, were informed of the indictment Wednesday afternoon and have agreed to appear for their arraignments in Los Angeles federal court in the coming weeks, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Representatives for Ridley-Thomas and Flynn could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
USC issued a statement saying, “When the university learned in the summer of 2018 about the $100,000 payment referenced in the indictment, the university disclosed the issue to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and has fully cooperated ever since. Marilyn Flynn has not been employed by the university since September 2018. We will continue to cooperate with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and must limit comments because this is a pending criminal matter.”
Both Ridley-Thomas and Flynn are charged with conspiracy and bribery. The indictment also charges both defendants with two counts of “honest services” mail fraud and 15 counts of “honest services” wire fraud.
“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. Attorney Tracy L. Wilkison said in a statement. “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. Public corruption cases are among the most important matters we pursue, and we will continue to investigate and prosecute whenever public officials and others entrusted with taxpayer funds break the law.”
The indictment outlines an alleged scheme in 2017 and 2018 in which then-Supervisor Ridley-Thomas sought benefits from Flynn and university officials to benefit his relative, who was the subject of an internal sexual harassment investigation in the state Assembly, likely to resign from elected office and significantly in debt.
The indictment did not name the relative, however, Ridley-Thomas’ son, Sebastian, resigned from the Assembly in 2017 amid investigations into sexual harassment complaints. He insisted at the time that his resignation was due to health reasons, not a sexual harassment probe. Sebastian Ridley-Thomas later became a professor of social work and public policy at USC — despite lacking a graduate degree. He was later terminated over questions about his original appointment and concerns by the university over the $100,000 that was donated from his father’s campaign funds to the School of Social Work, then directed to Sebastian Ridley-Thomas’ nonprofit.
Prosecutors claim Mark Ridley-Thomas wanted to secure paid employment for his son to minimize any public fallout for them both in the wake of the son’s sudden resignation from office. Meanwhile, the Social Work School 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 indictment.
As part of the bribery scheme, Ridley-Thomas and Flynn allegedly took steps “to disguise, conceal, and cover up the bribes, kickbacks and other benefits” Ridley-Thomas and his relative received — which included concealing the official acts Ridley-Thomas agreed to perform in exchange for the financial benefits, according to the document.
The pair also concealed, according to the indictment, the true purpose of the $100,000 funneled to the relative’s nonprofit through the university, which also violated multiple university policies regarding the funding of nonprofits, prosecutors said.
Within weeks of Ridley-Thomas contacting Flynn in May 2017 about his relative wanting a postgraduate degree from the university, Flynn began a campaign to secure both university admission and a full scholarship for the relative, prosecutors allege.
Flynn wrote in an email that she intended to open every door for the family member, the indictment alleges. When a university official said Ridley-Thomas had “lots of discretionary money” and should give the university “$1M each year for three years,” according to the indictment, Flynn responded that she and another university official intended to offer the relative a full scholarship in exchange for funds for the school.
In June 2017, Ridley-Thomas and Flynn allegedly reached an agreement, which Flynn later memorialized in a confidential letter she had hand-delivered to Ridley-Thomas, prosecutors said. The indictment alleges that 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.
With the new amendment, Flynn expected the Telehealth contract to generate about $9 million per year for the School of Social Work, prosecutors contend.
The indictment alleges that Ridley-Thomas took a series of official actions, including voting in August 2017 to approve a motion to establish a partnership between the county and Social Work School, and voting in October 2017 to approve a motion, related to “Probation University,” that would create a county payment source for the school.
Flynn told university officials in emails that she was “very happy to see that (Ridley-Thomas) was as good as his word” and that he was “really trying to deliver,” the indictment alleges.
The conspiracy count alleged in the indictment carries a penalty of up to five years in federal prison. Each bribery count carries a maximum possible sentence of 10 years. Each of the mail fraud and wire fraud charges carry a penalty of up to 20 years.
Ridley-Thomas is the third Los Angeles city councilman to be indicted in the past year.
Jose Huizar pleaded not guilty in December to bribery and other federal charges in a racketeering indictment alleging he took at least $1.5 million and other benefits from developers who sought favorable treatment on pending real estate development projects. Trial is set for May in the case, which ensnared political operatives, lobbyists and the former general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety.
Mitchell Englander pleaded guilty to a single felony charge in July last year, admitting he schemed to prevent federal investigators from learning about cash and other freebies he received from a Southern California businessman. He was sentenced in January to 14 months behind bars for lying to federal authorities about his dealings with the businessman who provided him $15,000 in secret cash payments and a night in Las Vegas.
Ridley-Thomas is a giant figure in local politics, previously serving on the Los Angeles City Council from 1991-2002, then serving in the state Assembly and state Senate before he was elected to the powerful county Board of Supervisors in 2008, serving until 2020 when he returned to the City Council.
He has a doctorate in social ethics from USC and spent 10 years as executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles, beginning in 1981.
News of the indictment prompted a quick response from City Councilman and mayoral candidate Joe Buscaino, who called on Ridley-Thomas to resign.
“I am shocked, saddened and disgusted by the federal bribery charges against Mark Ridley-Thomas,” Buscaino wrote on Twitter. “These charges tarnish the reputation of the entire LA City Council, and because of that, Ridley-Thomas should immediately step down from his position.”