In a town where the mayor is halfway there, a former city councilor has been sentenced to jail and another is awaiting trial, the indictment of City Councilor Mark Ridley-Thomas has dealt another blow to the stability of the government of the city of Los Angeles.
Mayor Eric Garcetti is still awaiting a confirmation hearing that will determine whether he will become the US Ambassador to India, and no one is sure when or if he will leave.
Ten of the city’s 18 elected officials are running for re-election or for a higher post, with some starting to shoot themselves during the election campaign. Meanwhile, anxious council members are still unsure which neighborhoods they will represent next year – thanks to a contentious redistribution process that has sparked protests in several parts of the city.
Today, city leaders were given another political grenade: what to do with Ridley-Thomas, a policy veteran who has had considerable influence on the homeless, public safety and other issues in the city. city scale.
Ridley-Thomas, who served 12 years as a county supervisor before returning to town hall last year, is accused of conspiring with Marilyn Louise Flynn, former dean of USC’s School of Social Work , to channel money from the county to college in exchange for admitting his son Sebastian to graduate school with a full tuition fee and a paid teaching position. The 20-count indictment includes charges of conspiracy, bribery and wire fraud.
Given the gravity of the charges, city leaders will need to discuss whether or not to allow Ridley-Thomas to continue in public office, said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School.
“I don’t know how they can avoid this conversation,” she said. “I don’t know how you can have a federal indictment with allegations he abused the public trust – by selling his public position for the benefit of his family – and not ask him if he should continue to make decisions on behalf of the City of Los Angèle. “
Ridley-Thomas attorney Michael J. Proctor called on the public to let due process take its course. Ridley-Thomas, he said, is “shocked by the federal allegations made against him, and with good reason.”
“They are wrong and we can’t wait to refute them. At no point in his elected career – not as a member of city council, state legislature or supervisory board – has he abused his position for personal gain, “said Proctor.
In the boardroom, the next step is for board chairman Nury Martinez. On Wednesday, she said her colleagues will have to “take appropriate action” in response to the case. But so far, she has declined to say what that decision would be.
Martinez could remove Ridley-Thomas from various board committees, including panels devoted to real estate development and homelessness. Council Chairman Herb Wesson took such a step in 2018, stripping Councilor Jose Huizar of his committee duties a week after FBI agents raided Huizar’s home in Boyle Heights.
The board could also take the much stronger step of suspending Ridley-Thomas, thereby preventing him from exercising the powers of his office. Huizar suffered this fate in June 2020, after being arrested and indicted in a sprawling corruption case that accused him of exploiting his power over real estate development for financial gain. He fights these accusations.
City comptroller Ron Galperin, for his part, could stop paying Ridley-Thomas, as he did last year with Huizar.
Grace Yoo, a lawyer who unsuccessfully appeared against Ridley-Thomas last year, said the council’s decision to suspend Huizar was the right one and helped restore public confidence. The board should do the same with Ridley-Thomas, she said.
“Los Angeles residents shouldn’t have to wait another day for honest leadership,” Yoo said.
Yet Huizar’s punishment only came after a long build-up, after federal prosecutors rolled out a steady stream of plea deals describing a series of improper acts committed by public officials – paid trips to casinos, moving money in a box of alcohol, requesting escort services.
At this point, former city councilor Mitchell Englander had agreed to plead guilty to a single count of lying to federal investigators leading the city hall corruption investigation. Englander was sentenced to 14 months in prison in this case.
In contrast, the criminal charges against Ridley-Thomas are still new. (The Times reported on many aspects of his deal with USC in 2018, but he wasn’t charged until Wednesday.)
Some colleagues at Ridley-Thomas did not respond to The Times’ requests for comment.
Mayor Garcetti, attending the inauguration of a homeless housing development project in North Hollywood, declined to say whether Ridley-Thomas should step down, calling the issue a “prerogative of city council.”
Garcetti called the indictment allegations “incredibly disturbing”, saying any abuse of public trust for personal gain would be “absolutely unacceptable”. But he also described Ridley-Thomas as a passionate advocate for ending homelessness who did a good job.
“If the allegations are true, people are complicated, aren’t they? Garcetti said. “They can do good things and bad things.”
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, said city leaders shouldn’t be rushing to judge.
“Ridley-Thomas has been an institution in its own right in black politics and in the black community for many, many years,” he said. “He has a lot of voters, 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 office would have immediate implications for the city. He held public office for 30 years and is a very influential player in municipal politics, heading the committee responsible for combating homelessness and poverty.
Ridley-Thomas was instrumental in developing the city’s “street engagement” strategy, which sends outreach workers to homeless settlements to persuade people to accept job offers. accommodation and other municipal services.
The city councilor also helped rewrite an ordinance that allows the city to ban homeless settlements in certain public spaces, adding language aimed at limiting law enforcement involvement.
Taylor Mayfield, president of the Crenshaw Neighbors community group, said he was devastated by the news of the indictment. “Mark Ridley-Thomas was my Obama,” said Mayfield, who has known him for over 25 years.
Mayfield said he hopes the community will continue to support the city councilor. “If he claims his innocence, why should he resign?” ” he said.
City Councilor Paul Krekorian asked if a council member could continue doing this work while facing a federal charge. And City Councilor Nithya Raman went further, saying Ridley-Thomas should lose his committee assignments – at least for now.
Raman said she cherished her time working with Ridley-Thomas on the homeless committee. But she also argued that the committee’s work involves “massive” investments of money, which require public trust.
“It cannot be done under the shadow of a federal indictment,” she said. “In the short term, Board member Ridley-Thomas is expected to step down as a committee. “
The Ridley-Thomas indictment comes at a volatile time in city politics. Some elected leaders, who are running either for re-election or for a higher post, have begun to criticize each other during the election campaign and at public meetings.
City Councilor Joe Buscaino has fallen out with several of his colleagues over their approach to homelessness, sometimes going to their neighborhoods to argue that the city’s efforts have failed. Atty of the city. Mayoral candidate Mike Feuer berated the council for its handling of the Los Angeles Police Department’s overtime costs.
“You have more elected [at City Hall] shoot himself. It’s a great thing, and it plays out in the votes of the council, in the actions of the council, ”said Brian VanRiper, a political consultant who has worked on the campaigns of several elected officials in Southern California, including Ridley- Thomas.
Asked about the vibe at town hall on Thursday, Martinez released a statement saying her colleagues would continue to focus on “providing stability and providing services to our residents.”
“We will stay focused on people’s work because that’s what Angelenos deserves,” she said.
Times editor Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.