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Column: Ridley-Thomas now bears the brunt of corruption accusations


Like I said before, maybe it’s in the water, or maybe it’s in the air. I don’t know which one, but when it comes to politics in Los Angeles, scandal is in the city’s DNA.

The latest exhibit is the Wednesday afternoon indictment of City Councilor Mark Ridley-Thomas, one of Los Angeles’ most prolific and powerful politicians.

Ridley-Thomas served in the State Assembly. He served in the State Senate. He served as a county supervisor between stints on LA city council. And he had often been seen as a potential candidate for mayor.

I know Ridley-Thomas fairly well, and have reported on his hard work and promises – particularly on homelessness policy – as well as his flirtations with trouble. Once, when I called him about a $ 700,000 plan to renovate his county office, he indignantly summoned me to defend himself along with almost all of his staff. He then spoke, as he often does, in a serious and measured tone and a formal cadence, his chest swelling, as if he was making a plea before a jury.

Then came a Times briefing detailing how county-paid crews had worked in his home to replace garage walls and install household appliances, including an air conditioner, heater, and television.

It was as if, at times, Ridley-Thomas intended to sabotage his own political aspirations. And yet, on some important topics, including homelessness, he knew more than most of his colleagues, worked more than they did, and did a lot more.

But now his current and future career rests under a cloud with federal charges alleging a corruption scandal in which Ridley-Thomas, while he was county supervisor, conspired with a former USC dean to lead. millions of dollars in county contracts to college. in exchange for the admission of his son, Sebastian, into graduate studies with a full scholarship and a paid teaching position.

The 20-count indictment also alleges that $ 100,000 from a Ridley-Thomas campaign fund was to be funneled through college to a non-profit organization where his son would work.

“This indictment accuses a seasoned lawmaker who allegedly abused public trust by taking official action for the benefit of a family member and himself,” the acting Atty US said. Tracy L. Wilkison said in a statement. “The corrupt activities alleged in the indictment were facilitated by a high-ranking administrator of a major university whose desire for funding apparently outweighed notions of integrity and fair play.

For shame. But none of this can come as a surprise, given that it comes three years after a Times investigation exposed the details and reported that USC alerted federal prosecutors following an internal investigation.

While nothing has been proven, it didn’t take long for City Council Chairman Nury Martinez to send a message that looked like Ridley-Thomas was sent to the penalty box.

“I am disappointed with the news that came out this afternoon of federal corruption charges against Council Member Mark Ridley-Thomas,” Martinez said. “Although the alleged crimes took place while Mr. Ridley-Thomas was on the Supervisory Board, these charges are serious and the Board will need to take appropriate action.”

And what could it be?

Hard to know, but it’s not like the scandal and City Council have just come together. Of course, Ridley-Thomas was a supervisor at the time of these alleged crimes. But city hall has kept federal prosecutors busy lately.

Jose Huizar, another bright light at one point, saw his term on city council cut short last year on corruption charges. And then there was former city councilor Mitch Englander, never described as brilliant, who was sentenced earlier this year to 14 months in federal prison for one of the dumbest corruption scandals in recent memory. That case involved trips to Vegas and Palm Springs, cash envelopes, free gambling chips, and $ 34,000 in bottle service at a nightclub.

It’s always about the money, isn’t it, here in the pay-to-play capital of the western United States? And I’m only scratching the surface of local corruption, limited by a dearth of trees and newsprint.

We’re of course nowhere near whether any of the charges against Ridley-Thomas will stand, although the alleged arrangement between Ridley-Thomas and USC appeared to be a stench when it first floated to the surface as a dead fish. I took a quick glance at the indictment, and it is filled with what could be interpreted as damning details of the correspondence between the supervisor and Marilyn Louise Flynn, former dean of the School of Social. USC Work.

Even if Ridley-Thomas, who is black, continues to serve on council while the court case unfolds, his influence could be severely reduced in the 10th arrondissement, where people of color are in the majority and economic challenges are deeply rooted. .

“These accusations tarnish the reputation of the entire LA City Council,” said Councilor Joe Buscaino, a mayoral candidate who called on Ridley-Thomas to step down.

Ridley-Thomas’ voice can unfortunately now be cut off on what is arguably the most important issue in Los Angeles and the one he’s had the most experience in – homelessness. He took a leadership role as a supervisor and fought – along with Mayor Eric Garcetti and others – to gain voter support for vast sums of money to provide housing and services .

But when the results of all that money and all that work fell short of the promise, Ridley-Thomas was one of the first to publicly admit that the effort started too late, the answer was too light and that despite some progress, both the homeless and the homeless deserved better from their elected officials.

We’ve talked a lot about what that meant, and Ridley-Thomas pushed for a while on his idea of ​​declaring housing a human right, building enough rooms to make it a possibility, and then finding a way. to manage the difficult task of coaxing even those who might be reluctant at first.

Following the indictment, he has what could be an even more difficult task to face.