Former Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson was cleared by a judge Thursday to begin serving as a temporary replacement for City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who was suspended from service following his indictment on federal corruption charges.
The ruling was issued by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mary Strobel in a lawsuit filed by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California, which challenged Ridley-Thomas’ suspension and Wesson’s appointment.
Strobel issued a temporary restraining order on Feb. 24 preventing Wesson, who was sworn in two days earlier, from immediately filling the seat. But on Thursday, she declined to extend the order in the form of an injunction, effectively lifting the TRO and allowing Wesson to begin serving.
SCLC attorney John Sweeney vowed to continue the legal fight, noting that Strobel’s decision was based on technical grounds, and she did not rule on the legality of Wesson’s appointment.
The SCLC of Southern California’s lawsuit is aimed at reinstating Ridley-Thomas to the City Council. Ridley-Thomas, who was the executive director of the organization’s Greater Los Angeles chapter from 1981-1991, was suspended from the council in October following the federal indictment.
Pastor William Smart, SCLC’s president, told City News Service in February he believes Ridley-Thomas’ suspension was “morally wrong, politically indefensible and patently illegal.”
Wesson represented the 10th District from 2005 to December 2020. He also served as the president of the council from 2012 to 2020. The lawsuit noted that Wesson is “termed out” and alleged he cannot lawfully assume the City Council seat because he already represented the district for three terms.
The motion to appoint Wesson as a temporary replacement for Ridley-Thomas was unanimously passed by the City Council on Feb. 22. According to the appointment, Wesson is supposed to hold the position through Dec. 31 unless Ridley-Thomas is acquitted or the charges against him are dropped.
“Throughout the emails I received and numerous meetings I engaged in with the residents of the 10th District, the community overwhelmingly suggested that former council member Herb Wesson should serve as the appointee for Council District 10,” Council President Nury Martinez said in a statement Thursday afternoon. “The judge previously ruled that the council absolutely had the authority to suspend council member Ridley-Thomas, and Thursday she denied the petitioners’ request to prevent Mr. Wesson from serving as council member for the 10th District. The people of the 10th deserve a vote on this council and Thursday we gave that to them.”
Since Ridley-Thomas’ suspension, the 10th District has been overseen by caretaker Karly Katona, who does not have voting authority. The City Council’s vote to suspend Ridley-Thomas passed with three council members in opposition: Councilmen Marqueece Harris-Dawson, Bonin and Curren Price. Price said before the vote that his office had been inundated with calls of support for Ridley-Thomas from South L.A. residents.
The trial for Ridley-Thomas and former dean of the USC School of Social Work Marilyn Flynn is tentatively set to begin Aug. 9. The defendants are charged in a 20-count indictment alleging a secret deal whereby Ridley-Thomas — when he was a member of the county Board of Supervisors — agreed to steer county money to the university in return for admitting his son Sebastian Ridley-Thomas into graduate school with a full-tuition scholarship and a paid professorship.
Flynn allegedly arranged to funnel a $100,000 donation from Ridley-Thomas’ campaign funds through the university to a nonprofit to be operated by his son, a former member of the state Assembly. The donation prompted an investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles that remains open, prosecutors said.
In exchange, the indictment contends, Ridley-Thomas supported county contracts involving the School of Social Work, including lucrative deals 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.
Both defendants have strongly denied any wrongdoing and promised that evidence will clear their names.