The Latest Scandal at Los Angeles City Hall
A councilman for South Los Angeles, Mark Ridley-Thomas, has been indicted on federal charges of taking bribes from a U.S.C. dean.,
Like most big cities, Los Angeles has had its share of scandal at City Hall — some might say more than its share in the past few years.
There’s the lawsuit in which a former member of the mayor’s security detail has accused a former top aide of sexual harassment. There’s the furor over the mayor’s former chief of staff posting disparaging remarks about the 91-year-old labor icon Dolores Huerta. There were the Las Vegas freebies and cash payments that landed Councilman Mitch Englander in federal prison and the alleged bribes from real estate developers that got Councilman Jose Huizar federally indicted.
But few accusations have rocked the city like the charges announced this week against Mark Ridley-Thomas, a South Los Angeles councilman who has been a force in the city’s political establishment for more than a generation: a state lawmaker, a county supervisor and a city councilman twice.
In the past several years, he has led the city’s efforts to combat homelessness and advised the governor on the issue. Less than two months ago, Ridley-Thomas was being talked about as a prospective mayoral candidate.
Now, in a federal grand jury indictment, prosecutors allege that in 2017, when he was on the county’s powerful Board of Supervisors, Ridley-Thomas supported millions of dollars in public contracts for the University of Southern California in exchange for a deal in which the university would give a full-tuition scholarship and a paid professorship to an unnamed “relative” who appears to be his son, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas.
The son, now 34, was at the time a state legislator facing #MeToo sexual harassment accusations. He had resigned from the California Assembly in 2017 citing health problems and re-emerged several months later as a professor of social work and public policy at U.S.C. despite the lack of a graduate degree.
The 20-count indictment charges that the elder Ridley-Thomas had conspired with Marilyn Louise Flynn, a former dean in the U.S.C. school of social work, to channel contracts with the county’s enormous probation, children’s services and mental health departments to U.S.C. in return for his son’s soft landing. The indictment charges that the father also wanted U.S.C. to help him facilitate a nonprofit organization that would be run by his “relative” and underwritten with campaign funds.
The school of social work, the indictment says, was facing a multimillion-dollar budget deficit that threatened both its finances and the dean’s position and reputation. After reports in The Los Angeles Times and an internal university investigation, U.S.C. reportedly fired Sebastian Ridley-Thomas in 2018. A subsequent investigation commissioned by the State Assembly found that the son had “more likely than not” harassed two legislative staff members during the four years he had been representing his Los Angeles County district.
U.S.C.’s reputation has taken a pummeling lately, including a $1.1 billion payout for accusations of sexual misconduct by its campus gynecologist, and federal convictions against two parents for participating in a bribery scheme to have their children fraudulently admitted as athletic recruits.
Mark Ridley-Thomas was criticized in 2014 for having county-paid crews remodel his garage and in 2015 for having them wash his car two or three times weekly during a drought. That year, emails revealed a potentially questionable donation to his political action committee. But none of those accusations resulted in legal trouble.
“Mark Ridley-Thomas was shocked by the federal allegations leveled against him, and with good reason,” his lawyer, Michael J. Proctor, said in a statement on Thursday. “They are wrong, and we look forward to disproving them.” He added that “at no point in his career as an elected official” had Ridley-Thomas abused his position for personal gain.
Flynn’s lawyers, Vicki I. Podberesky and Brian Hennigan, said their client had devoted her entire professional life and 45 years in academia to the city’s social welfare network and “has not committed any crime.”
Ridley-Thomas, 66, and Flynn, 83, were each charged with conspiracy, bribery and honest services mail fraud and wire fraud.
The charges shake a City Hall that is already unsteady, with Mayor Eric Garcetti awaiting uncertain confirmation on his nomination to become U.S. ambassador to India and neighborhoods arguing over the redistricting of the 15 council districts.
The Council president, Nury Martinez, has threatened “appropriate action” against Ridley-Thomas. Garcetti, whose father was a Los Angeles district attorney, has said “everything should be on the table,” including the Council’s “prerogative” to suspend him. Joe Buscaino, a councilman running for mayor, called for his resignation.
Paul Krekorian, another councilman, would not go that far on Thursday, but noted that “when people are facing federal indictments, it’s very difficult for them to do their jobs.”
Shawn Hubler is a correspondent for The New York Times, currently based in Sacramento.
The rest of the news
New Cal State L.A. grads: A group of California inmates earned bachelor’s degrees while behind bars.
Dodgers vs. Giants: Los Angeles got its 110th win of the year by beating San Francisco, who finished with 109 victories. The Dodgers will now meet Atlanta for the National League pennant and a trip to the World Series.
Oil spill: The amount of crude oil spilled off the coast of Orange County is believed to be close to 25,000 gallons, about one-fifth of what officials initially feared, The Associated Press reports.
Strength in numbers: Born out of the American civil rights movement, Black artists’ coalitions thrived in the 1960s and ’70s. Now, a new generation is discovering their power.
Brink of extinction: The race is on to save California’s rarest butterflies, the BBC reports.
The pandemic: Have we weathered our last Covid-19 surge?
Record drought: A lack of precipitation combined with high temperatures this summer made for the worst drought conditions in California’s history, according to CNN.
Weather warning: There are extreme fire conditions because of dry and hot winds in much of Ventura and Los Angeles Counties from Friday morning through Saturday evening.
Hollywood strike: The 60,000 members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees are gearing up to picket on Monday, Variety reports.
Climate change: Fifty-six percent of Los Angeles County residents live in a neighborhood that is highly vulnerable to either extreme heat, wildfire, drought, flooding or sea level rise, LAist reports.
Robert Durst: The subject of a Hollywood movie and an HBO documentary, Durst was sentenced to life in prison on Thursday for killing a close friend who could have revealed details about his wife’s disappearance in 1982.
Alisal fire: The blaze, which has been burning near Santa Barbara since Monday, was 11 percent contained as of Thursday night, The Associated Press reports.
Vaccine passport ban: San Joaquin County has banned vaccine passports to visit indoor government establishments, according to The San Joaquin Valley Sun.
Strange traffic: A normally quiet street in San Francisco is now plagued with confused self-driving cars, San Francisco CBS Local reports.
San Francisco vaccine deadline: Thursday was the last day for San Francisco city employees to get their Covid-19 shots. Officials expected that the new mandate would mean that 120 police officers would not be on patrol on Thursday, NBC Bay Area reports.
Vaccine opposition: The Oak Run Elementary School superintendent has decided to cancel class on Monday after parents told her they would not be bringing their children to school that day in protest of Covid-19 vaccine requirements, according to KRCR.
Developing storm: The long-term forecast for mid-October shows several days of moderate to heavy rain, which could help to quell existing wildfires and improve drought conditions, SF Gate reports.
What we’re eating
Ramen with charred scallions, green beans and chile oil.
Where we’re traveling
Today’s travel tip comes from Rich Hall, who recommends the seaside town of Carpinteria and its state beach:
When our children were young we camped there as family and in larger groups of Girl Scouts, YMCA, church and just friends. Now it is usually just the two of us in a small trailer, hopefully with a campsite near the sand dunes.
The town is so close, and so small, that a walk can get you to a nice number of restaurants, groceries, museums and unique shops. The new boardwalk along the top of one section of the sand dunes serves two purposes — it allows people with physical disabilities to see the dunes and ocean, and it also keeps people out of the dunes so natural plants can thrive.
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
What we’re recommending
Traveling alone, in groups.
And before you go, some good news
In the early 1900s, a resort in Manhattan Beach was one of the few places where people of color could enjoy Southern California’s coast.
“You would take the Red Car down … and spend a day on the beautiful beach or rent a room if you desired,” Miriam Matthews, Los Angeles’s first Black librarian, once wrote. “If one tired of the sand and surf, the parlor was available for listening to music or dancing.”
But the city of Manhattan Beach wrenched the property, known as Bruce’s Beach, away from its owners, Willa and Charles Bruce. Officials said they wanted to build a park there, but they were mostly interested in kicking Black residents out of town, LAist reports.
Nearly a century later, the property has been returned to the Bruces’ descendants, a move celebrated by social justice leaders.
“We’re very happy about the outcome. The people of California have unanimously spoken,” Chief Duane Shepard, a family member known as Yellow Feather, told LAist. “They did the right thing by making us whole.”
Thanks for reading. Enjoy your weekend. I’ll be back in your inbox on Monday. — Soumya
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Chef’s wear (5 letters).
Steven Moity and Mariel Wamsley contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.