In a city where the mayor walks in the gate, a former councilor has been given a prison sentence and another is awaiting trial, the sumbong of Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas delivered another blow to the stability of the Los Angeles city government.
Ten of the city’s 18 elected officials are running for re-election or for higher office, with a few starting shots at each other on the campaign trail. Meanwhile, concerned council members still don’t know which neighborhoods they will represent next year – thanks to a controversial redistricting process already have began a protest in many parts of the city.
Now, city leaders have been given another political grenade: what to do about Ridley-Thomas, a veteran policy maker which is very much influenced by homelessness, public safety and other urban issues.
Ridley-Thomas, who served 12 years as a county supervisor previously return to City Hall last year, was accused of conspiring with Marilyn Louise Flynn, former dean of USC’s School of Social Work, to divert county money to the university in exchange for her son Sebastian’s admission to graduate school with full tuition and a paid professor. Ang 20-count indictment includes charges of conspiracy, bribery and wire fraud.
Given the seriousness of those accusations, city leaders will need to discuss whether Ridley-Thomas will be allowed to continue to perform his public duties, Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson said.
“I don’t know how they can avoid that conversation,” he said. “I don’t know how you can have a federal lawsuit with allegations that he abused public trust – selling his position to the public for the benefit of his family – and not ask if he should continue to make decision on behalf of the city of Los Angeles. “
Ridley-Thomas’ attorney, Michael J. Proctor, appealed to the public to let due process take course. Ridley-Thomas, he said, was “shocked by the federal allegations leveled against him, and with good reason.”
“They are wrong, and we hope that will not prove it. At any point in his career as an elected official – not as a member of the City Council, the state Legislature, or the Board of Supervisors – he abused his position for personal gain, ”Proctor said.
In the council room, the next step rests with Council President Nury Martinez. On Wednesday, he said his colleagues needed to “take appropriate action” in response to the case. But for now, he has refused to specify what that move is.
Martinez could remove Ridley-Thomas from various council committees, including panels focused on real estate development and homelessness. Council President Herb Wesson take such a step in 2018, Councilman Jose Huizar’s assignment was removed a week after FBI agents attacked Huizar’s home in Boyle Heights.
The council could also take stronger steps to suspend Ridley-Thomas, effectively barring him from using the powers of his office. Huizar suffered that fate in June 2020, after he was arrested and charged with a extensive cases of corruption who accused him of using his power in real estate development for financial gain. He fights those charges.
City Controller Ron Galperin, for his part, could have stopped paying Ridley-Thomas, just like he did made last year with Huizar.
Grace Yoo, a lawyer who unsuccessfully ran against Ridley-Thomas last year, said the council’s decision to suspend Huizar was right and helped restore public trust. The council should do the same thing with Ridley-Thomas, he said.
“People in Los Angeles shouldn’t wait another day to have honest leadership,” Yoo said.
However, Huizar’s punishment came only following a lengthy buildup, after prosecutors launched a steady stream of pleading agreements describing a range of misconduct by public officials – fees traveling to casinos, transferring money to a box of wine, requesting escort services
At that point, former Member Mitchell Englander had agreed to be guilty in a number of lies to federal investigators conducting a corruption probe at City Hall. England received a 14 -month sentence in that case
In contrast, the criminal cases against Ridley-Thomas are still new. (The Times reported many aspects of him arrangement at USC in 2018, but he was not charged until Wednesday.)
Some of Ridley-Thomas’ colleagues did not respond to requests from The Times for comment.
Mayor Garcetti, who attended a groundbreaking for an undeveloped housing in North Hollywood, declined to say whether Ridley-Thomas should step down, calling the matter “the prerogative of the City Council.”
Garcetti called the allegations in the lawsuit “incredibly disturbing,” saying any abuse of public trust for personal gain is “completely unacceptable.” But he also described Ridley-Thomas as an ardent advocate to end homelessness who did a great job.
“If the allegations are true, people are complicated, right?” Garcetti said. “They can do good things and bad things.”
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, said city leaders should not rush into judgment.
“Ridley-Thomas has been an institution of a man in Black politics, and in the Black community, for many, many years,” he said. “He has a lot of constituents, a lot of people, who look to him not just to be their representative – they see him as a political leader.”
Stripping Ridley-Thomas of his duties will have immediate implications for the city. He held public office for 30 years and was an influential player in city politics, chairing the committee charged with fighting homelessness and poverty.
Ridley-Thomas played a major role in developing the city’s “street engagement” strategy, sending outreach workers to homeless encampments to persuade people to accept offers of shelter and other city services.
The councilor also helped rewrite an ordinance allowing the city to forbidden in the homeless camps in some public spaces, adding language aimed at limiting law enforcement involvement.
Taylor Mayfield, president of the community group Crenshaw Neighbors, said she was devastated by the news of the accusation. “Mark Ridley-Thomas has been my Obama,” said Mayfield, who has known him for more than 25 years.
Mayfield said he expects the community to continue to support the councilor. “If he claims he’s innocent, why would he go down?” he said.
Councilman Paul Krekorian questioned whether a council member could continue to do that work while also facing federal indictment. And Councilwoman Nithya Raman went further, saying Ridley -Thomas should lose her committee duties – somehow for now.
Raman said he appreciated his time working with Ridley-Thomas on the homelessness committee. But he also argued that the committee’s work involves “massive” investments of money, which requires public trust.
“It can’t be carried out under the shadow of a federal lawsuit,” he said. “In the short term, Council Member Ridley-Thomas should step down from his committee assignments.”
The accusation against Ridley-Thomas came at a volatile moment in city politics. Some elected leaders, running in elections or seeking higher office, began to criticize each other in the course of the campaign and during public meetings.
Councilman Joe Buscaino talks to some of his colleagues on their approach to homelessness, sometimes traveling to their districts to make the case that the city’s efforts have failed. City Atty. Mike Feuer, who is running for mayor, has argued with the council for its handling of the Los Angeles Police Department’s overtime costs.
“You have many more elected officials [at City Hall] capturing each other. That’s a big thing, and it’s playing into council votes, into council actions, ”said Brian VanRiper, a political consultant who has worked on the campaigns of several elected officials in Southern California, including Ridley- Thomas.
Asked Thursday about the situation at City Hall, Martinez issued a statement saying his colleagues will continue to focus on “providing stability and delivery for our residents.”
“We will remain focused on the work of the people because that is what Angelenos deserves,” he said.
Times staff writer Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.