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 a Ridley-Thomas relative 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’ relative with graduate school admission, a full-tuition scholarship, a paid professorship, and a mechanism to funnel 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.
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 close 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, although he was later terminated over questions about his original appointment.
Prosecutors claim Mark Ridley-Thomas wanted to secure paid employment for his relative to minimize any public fallout for them both in the wake of the 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 money 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.