In a city where the mayor is partway out the door, one former councilman has been handed a prison sentence and another is awaiting trial, the indictment of Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas delivered however another blow to the stability of Los Angeles city government.
Mayor Eric Garcetti is nevertheless waiting for a confirmation hearing that will determine whether he becomes U.S. ambassador to India, and no one knows for certain when or if he will leave.
Ten of the city’s 18 elected officials are running for reelection or for higher office, with some beginning to take shots at each other on the campaign trail. Meanwhile, eager council members nevertheless don’t know what neighborhoods they will represent next year — thanks to a contentious redistricting course of action that has sparked protests across several parts of the city.
Now, city leaders have been handed another political grenade: what to do about Ridley-Thomas, a veteran policy maker who has been enormously influential on homelessness, public safety and other citywide issues.
Ridley-Thomas, who served 12 years as a county supervisor before returning to City Hall last year, is accused of conspiring with Marilyn Louise Flynn, former dean of USC’s School of Social Work, to steer county money to the university in return for admission of his son Sebastian into graduate school with complete tuition and a paid professorship. The 20-count indictment includes charges of conspiracy, bribery and wire fraud.
Given the seriousness of those accusations, city leaders will need to discuss whether to permit Ridley-Thomas to keep performing his public duties, said Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson.
“I don’t know how they can avoid that conversation,” she said. “I don’t know how you can have a federal indictment with allegations that he abused the public trust — selling his public position for the assistance of his family — and not ask whether he should continue to make decisions on behalf of the city of Los Angeles.”
Ridley-Thomas’ lawyer, Michael J. Proctor, appealed to the public to let due course of action take its course. Ridley-Thomas, he said, is “shocked by the federal allegations leveled against him, and with good reason.”
“They are wrong, and we look forward to disproving them. At no point in his career as an elected official — not as a member of the City Council, the state Legislature, or the Board of Supervisors — has he abused his position for personal gain,” Proctor said.
In the council chamber, the next move rests with Council President Nury Martinez. On Wednesday, she said her colleagues will need to “take appropriate action” in response to the case. But so far, she has declined to specify what that move would be.
Martinez could remove Ridley-Thomas from the council’s various committees, including panels concentrated on real estate development and homelessness. Council President Herb Wesson took such a step in 2018, stripping Councilman Jose Huizar of his committee assignments a week after FBI agents raided Huizar’s home in Boyle Heights.
The council also could take the much stronger step of suspending Ridley-Thomas, effectively barring him from exercising the powers of his office. Huizar suffered that fate in June 2020, after he was arrested and charged in a sprawling corruption case that accused him of leveraging his strength over real estate development for financial gain. He is fighting those charges.
City Controller Ron Galperin, for his part, could stop paying Ridley-Thomas, as he did last year with Huizar.
Grace Yoo, an attorney who ran unsuccessfully against Ridley-Thomas last year, said the council’s decision to suspend Huizar was the right one and helped restore public trust. The council should do the same thing with Ridley-Thomas, she said.
“The people of Los Angeles should not have to wait another day to have honest leadership,” Yoo said.
nevertheless, the punishment of Huizar took place only following a lengthy buildup, after federal prosecutors had rolled out a steady stream of plea agreements describing an range of unseemly acts by public officials — paid trips to casinos, moving cash in a liquor box, requesting escort sets.
At that point, former Councilman Mitchell Englander had agreed to plead guilty to a single count of lying to federal investigators waging the City Hall corruption probe. Englander received a 14-month sentence in that case.
By contrast, the criminal charges against Ridley-Thomas are nevertheless new. (The Times reported on many aspects of his arrangement with USC in 2018, but he was not indicted until Wednesday.)
Some of Ridley-Thomas’ colleagues did not respond to requests from The Times for comment.
Mayor Garcetti, attending a groundbreaking for a homeless housing development in North Hollywood, declined to say whether Ridley-Thomas should step down, calling the matter “the City Council’s prerogative.”
Garcetti called the allegations in the indictment “incredibly disturbing,” saying any abuse of the public trust for personal gain would be “absolutely unacceptable.” But he also described Ridley-Thomas as a passionate advocate to end homelessness who has done good work.
“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 to judgment.
“Ridley-Thomas has been a one-man institution in Black politics, and in the Black community, for many, many years,” he said. “He’s got 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 would have immediate implications for the city. He has been in office for 30 years and is a highly influential player in city politics, heading the committee charged with combatting homelessness and poverty.
Ridley-Thomas played a huge role in developing the city’s “street engagement” strategy, which sends outreach workers to homeless encampments to persuade people to accept offers of shelter and other city sets.
The councilman also helped rewrite an ordinance that allows the city to outlaw homeless encampments in certain public spaces, adding language aimed at limiting the involvement of law enforcement.
Taylor Mayfield, president of the community group Crenshaw Neighbors, said he is devastated by the news of indictment. “Mark Ridley-Thomas has been my Obama,” said Mayfield, who has known him for more than 25 years.
Mayfield said he hopes the community will continue to sustain the councilman. “If he’s claiming innocence, why should he step down?” he said.
Councilman Paul Krekorian questioned whether a council member can continue to do that job while also facing federal indictment. And Councilwoman Nithya Raman went further, saying Ridley-Thomas should lose his committee assignments — at the minimum for now.
Raman said she has treasured her time working with Ridley-Thomas on the homelessness committee. But she also argued that the committee’s work involves “enormous” investments of money, which require public trust.
“It cannot be conducted under the shadow of a federal indictment,” she said. “In the short term, Council Member Ridley-Thomas should step down from his committee assignments.”
The indictment of Ridley-Thomas arrives at a volatile moment in the city’s politics. Some elected leaders, who are either running for reelection or seeking higher office, have begun criticizing one another on the campaign trail and during public meetings.
Councilman Joe Buscaino has tangled with several of his colleagues over their approach to homelessness, sometimes traveling into their districts to make the case that the city’s efforts have fallen short. City Atty. Mike Feuer, who is running for mayor, has chided the council for its handling of LAPD overtime costs.
“You have more elected officials [at City Hall] taking shots at each other. That’s a big thing, and it’s playing out in council votes, in 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 mood at City Hall, Martinez issued a statement saying her colleagues would continue focusing on “providing stability and delivering for our residents.”
“We will stay focused on the people’s work because that is what Angelenos deserve,” she said.
Times staff writer Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.
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