Opening statements are expected Wednesday in the federal criminal trial of suspended Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who while a member of the Board of Supervisors allegedly steered county contracts to USC’s social work school in exchange for benefits for his son.
Ridley-Thomas, 68, was suspended from the Los Angeles City Council following the October 2021 federal indictment. He is charged with one count each of conspiracy and bribery, two counts of honest services mail fraud and 15 counts of honest services wire fraud. He has vehemently denied any wrongdoing.
A jury was seated in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday to hear the case against Ridley-Thomas.
Prosecutors contend that in exchange for Ridley-Thomas’ efforts on behalf of the then-dean of the social work school, Marilyn Flynn, the politician’s son Sebastian was given admission to USC, a full-tuition scholarship, and a paid professorship.
Flynn admitted helping to disguise and funnel $100,000 from Ridley-Thomas’ campaign account through the school to another nonprofit, United Ways of California, for the benefit of the Policy, Research & Practice Initiative, a new nonprofit initiative founded by Sebastian, according to her plea agreement.
By funneling the payment through USC, Ridley-Thomas and co-defendant Flynn attempted to disguise the true source of the payment to make it appear as though USC, not the then-supervisor, was the generous benefactor supporting his son and PRPI, prosecutors say.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office alleges that Ridley-Thomas delivered on his end of the bargain. As a supervisor in 2018, he voted on three county proposals that Flynn had sought to shore up her school’s shoddy financial situation, including a vote approving a much more lucrative amended Telehealth agreement with the USC School of Social Work, prosecutors contend. He also allegedly sought to influence key county decision-makers associated with the approvals and made sure Flynn knew of his efforts.
Flynn, 84, of Los Feliz, pleaded guilty in September to one count of bribery, admitting that she agreed to route money from Ridley-Thomas to Sebastian’s nonprofit. She is scheduled to be sentenced June 26.
Prosecutors say the amended Telehealth contract was expected to generate about $9 million a year for the social work school.
As a result of the deal, Sebastian 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 donation. He also obtained a full-tuition scholarship and graduate school admission, papers filed in Los Angeles federal court show.
Flynn was dean of the School of Social Work at USC for 21 years until her departure in 2018. She had originally been facing the same slate of federal charges as Ridley-Thomas.
Responding to news of Flynn’s plea agreement, USC issued a statement last year saying that after the university learned during the summer of 2018 about unethical conduct by the former dean, “we quickly disclosed the matter to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Marilyn Flynn has not been employed by the university since September 2018. USC is not a party to the criminal case but respects the judicial process.”
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.