Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas faces charges of conspiracy, bribery and fraud stemming from his time as a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
Ridley-Thomas and a former University of Southern California (USC) dean were indicted on federal corruption charges, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California.
The charges stem from allegations that Ridley-Thomas’s son Sebastian received substantial benefits from the university in exchange for the politician’s support of county contracts and lucrative contract amendments with USC during his time on the board of supervisors.
“This indictment charges a seasoned lawmaker who allegedly abused the public’s trust by taking official actions to benefit his family member and himself,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Tracy L. Wilkison. “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.”
Ridley-Thomas allegedly conspired with Marilyn Louise Flynn, formerly a tenured professor and the dean of the university’s School of Social Work, who agreed to provide the city councilman’s son with graduate school admission, a full-tuition scholarship and a paid professorship, according to a 20-count indictment. The agreement also included an avenue for Ridley-Thomas to receive campaign funds through the university to a nonprofit operated by the son.
In return, Ridley-Thomas allegedly agreed to support contracts involving the USC’s social work school including one that provided services to the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and Probation Department, as well as an amendment to a contract with the Department of Mental Health (DMH) that would bring the school millions of dollars in new revenue, according to the indictment.
Ridley-Thomas, 66, of Los Angeles, and Flynn, 83, also of Los Angeles, learned of the indictments Wednesday afternoon and agreed to appear for their arraignments in the coming weeks.
“This investigation should send a message to public officials that government contracts are not for sale,” said Kristi K. Johnson, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI‘s Los Angeles Field Office. “This indictment reaffirms the FBI’s commitment to rooting out corruption by holding accountable those who abuse the trust of the people they serve and who exploit their powerful positions to obtain benefits at the expense of taxpayers.”
The scheme began in 2017, according to the indictment, when then-supervisor Ridley-Thomas hoped to secure paid employment for his son, who was the subject of an internal sexual harassment investigation in the California State Assembly and would likely resign from elected office in significant debt. Ridley-Thomas believed the position would minimize public fallout for them both following a sudden resignation.
At the same time, the Social Work School faced a multimillion-dollar budget deficit which threatened both Flynn’s position and reputation as longtime dean and the school’s overall viability, the indictment stated.
Ridley-Thomas and Flynn allegedly took steps “to disguise, conceal, and cover up the bribes, kickbacks, and other benefits defendant Ridley-Thomas and [Ridley’s relative] received,” as part of the bribery scheme which included concealing the acts performed for financial benefits. The court documents also stated the pair are accused of concealing the true purpose of the money funneled into Ridley-Thomas’s son’s organization which violated numerous university policies on the funding of nonprofits.
Weeks after Ridley-Thomas conspired with Flynn in May 2017, Flynn began securing admission and a full scholarship for Ridley-Thomas’ son.
Flynn wrote in an email that she “intend[ed] to open every door for [the relative],” whom she noted was closely related to the then-supervisor, the indictment alleges.
A university official responded that Ridley-Thomas had “lots of discretionary money” should give the university “$1M each year for three years,” according to the indictment. Flynn responded that she and another school official intended to offer the entire scholarship to the relative and characterized the exchange as a “full scholarship for our [Social Work School] funds.”
Flynn and Ridley-Thomas allegedly reached a quid pro quo agreement the next month. The indictment alleges that the pair exchanged a confidential letter with details of the agreement included like the politician’s commitment to securing a lucrative amendment to an existing telehealth contract that would generate $9 million per year for Flynn’s Social Work School.
In the fall, weeks after Flynn told university officials she was “very happy to see that [defendant Ridley-Thomas] was as good as his word,” the politician and his son began soliciting for a paid professorship while concealing the sexual harassment investigation. Their efforts increased in December when the relative was at risk of being forced out of office, the indictment alleged.
Eventually, Ridley-Thomas’s son received a full scholarship worth $26,000 for the 2018 spring and summer terms—which was partly awarded by the social work school’s endowed funds despite the budget deficit. He was later given a paid teaching position with a $50,000 salary.
The indictment goes on to say that Flynn and Ridley-Thomas also schemed to funnel $100,000 from one of his campaign committees through the university to the nonprofit where Sebastian worked.
News of the charges come three years after The Los Angeles Times reported USC provided Sebastian Ridley-Thomas a scholarship and professorship around the time Ridley-Thomas used the university and his son’s nonprofit to funnel campaign money.
Flynn has not been employed with the university since 2018 when it learned about the $100,000 payment referenced in the indictment, USC said in a statement. The FBI is investigating the matter.
Newsweek reached out to Ridley-Thomas and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti for comment.