L.A. Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, former USC dean indicted for bribery

Mark Ridley Thomas attends the 6th Anniversary Of MLK Community Health Foundation's "Sharing The Dream" Luncheon at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on January 18, 2019.
Mark Ridley Thomas attends the 6th Anniversary Of MLK Community Health Foundation's "Sharing The Dream" Luncheon at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on January 18, 2019. Photo credit Leon Bennett/Getty Images

A federal grand jury indicted Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas Wednesday and a former dean at USC, accusing them of a bribery scheme concerning university admissions and millions of dollars in contracts.

The charges accuse him of conspiring with the university's ex-dean of social work, Marilyn Louise Flynn, during his tenure as a member of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

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Prosecutors said Ridley-Thomas pushed through millions of dollars in contracts that benefited the university in exchange for admitting his son Sebastian to the school along with a full-tuition scholarship, a paid teaching position, and an insider scheme to funnel Ridley-Thomas’ campaign funds through USC and on to a non-profit his son would operate, according to the Department of Justice.

“This indictment charges a seasoned lawmaker who allegedly abused the public’s trust by taking official actions to benefit his family member and himself,” Acting U.S. Attorney Tracy L. Wilkison said in a statement. “The corrupt activities alleged in the indictment were facilitated by a major university’s high-ranking administrator whose desire for funding apparently trumped notions of integrity and fair play.”

“Public corruption cases are among the most important matters we pursue, and we will continue to investigate and prosecute whenever public officials and others entrusted with taxpayer funds break the law,” the U.S. attorney continued.

“This investigation should send a message to public officials that government contracts are not for sale,” said FBI Los Angeles Assistant Director Kristi K. Johnson. “This indictment reaffirms the FBI’s commitment to rooting out corruption by holding accountable those who abuse the trust of the people they serve and who exploit their powerful positions to obtain benefits at the expense of taxpayers.”

Federal prosecutors said in 2017 and 2018, Mark Ridley-Thomas attempted to obtain favor from USC officials to help his son, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, a former California Assemblymember accused of sexual harassment. As Sebastian faced a sudden potential resignation, the Justice Department alleged Mark “wanted to minimize any public fallout for them both.”

Simultaneously, the USC School of Social Work was balancing a multi-million dollar budget deficit.

The indictment accuses Ridley-Thomas and Flynn of “disguising, concealing, and covering up bribes, kickbacks, and other benefits” in exchange for promises of financial benefits to the university.

“Ridley-Thomas and Flynn allegedly reached a quid pro quo agreement, which Flynn later memorialized in a confidential letter,” the DOJ said, claiming the letter detailed expectations the Board of Supervisors member would “steer new contracts with DCFS and Probation to the Social Work School.” Flynn expected a second provision for a telehealth contract to generate an estimated $9 million per year for the USC department.

“He cannot govern effectively,” L.A. City Councilman Joe Buscaino, who is running for mayor next year, told KNX 1070. “We can’t have someone facing federal charges of this magnitude running for office in Los Angeles.”

DOJ officials said Ridley-Thomas, 66, and Flynn, 88, agreed to appear in federal court to answer to the charges in the coming weeks. Both defendants face charges of conspiracy, bribery, two counts of mail fraud, and 15 counts of wire fraud.

“When the university learned in the summer of 2018 about the $100,000 payment referenced in the indictment, the university disclosed the issue to the U.S. Attorney's Office and has fully cooperated ever since,” USC said in a statement. “Marilyn Flynn has not been employed by the university since September 2018. We will continue to cooperate with the U.S. Attorney's Office and must limit comments because this is a pending criminal matter.”