The Ridley-Thomas allegations increase uncertainty in LA City Hall


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In a city where the mayor is halfway through, one former councilor has been sentenced to prison and another is awaiting trial, councilor Mark Ridley-Thomas ’indictment dealt another blow to the stability of Los Angeles city government.

Mayor Eric Garcetti is still awaiting a confirmatory hearing to determine whether he will become U.S. ambassador to India, and no one knows for sure when or whether he will leave.

Ten of the city’s 18 elected officials are running for re-election or senior office, and some are starting to shoot at each other during the election campaign. Concerned council members, meanwhile, still don’t know which neighborhoods they will represent next year – thanks to a controversial redistribution process that has sparked protests in several parts of the city.

Now, another political grenade has been handed to city leaders: what to do with Ridley-Thomas, a veteran politician who has had a huge impact on homelessness, public safety and other city issues.

Ridley-Thomas, who spent 12 years as county superintendent before returning to City Hall last year, has been accused of teaming up with Marilyn Louise Flynn, former dean of the USC School of Social Work, to direct county money to the university in exchange. for enrollment his son Sebastian graduated with full tuition and a paid professor. The 20-count indictment includes charges of conspiracy, bribery and wire fraud.

Given the seriousness of these allegations, city leaders will have to discuss whether to allow Ridley-Thomas to continue performing his public duties, Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson said.

“I don’t know how I can avoid that conversation,” she said. “I don’t know how you can have a federal indictment alleging that he abused public trust – by selling his public position for the benefit of his family – and not asking if he should continue to make decisions on behalf of the city of Los Angeles. ”

Ridley-Thomas’ attorney, Michael J. Proctor, appealed to the public to allow the proceedings to proceed properly. Ridley-Thomas, he said, was “shocked by the federal allegations made against him, and with good reason.”

“They are wrong and we are looking forward to their refutation. At no point in his career has an elected official – nor as a member of the City Council, the state legislature or the Board of Supervisors – abused his position for personal gain, ”Proctor said.

In City Hall, the next move is Council President Nury Martinez. On Wednesday, she said her colleagues would have to “take appropriate action” in response to the case. But so far she has refused to say what the move would be.

The woman speaks in the City Council premises with several people around her.

Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez, portrayed in councils in 2019, said Wednesday that her colleagues would have to “take appropriate action” in response to Mark Ridley-Thomas

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Martinez could remove Ridley-Thomas from various council committees, including panels dedicated to real estate development and homelessness. Council President Herb Wesson took such a step in 2018, stripping Councilor Jose Huizar of his duties on the committee a week after FBI agents raided Huizar’s house in Boyle Heights.

The council could also take a much stronger step of suspending Ridley-Thomas, making it impossible for him to exercise his powers. Huizar suffered such a fate in June 2020, after he was arrested and charged in a major corruption case that accused him of using his power over real estate development for financial gain. He is fighting these charges.

City controller Ron Galperin, for his part, could stop paying Ridley-Thomas, as he did last year with Huizar.

Grace Yoo, a lawyer who unsuccessfully fought Ridley-Thomas last year, said the council’s decision to suspend Huizar was the right one and helped restore public confidence. The council should do the same thing with Ridley-Thomas, she said.

“People in Los Angeles shouldn’t have to wait another day to have honest leadership,” Yoo said.

However, Huizar was punished only after a long period of accumulation, after federal prosecutors introduced a permanent series of plea agreements that describe a series of inappropriate acts of public officials – paid trips to casinos, moving cash in a drink box, seeking escort service.

Former councilor Mitchell Englander then agreed to plead guilty to one count of lying to federal investigators investigating corruption in City Hall. Englender was sentenced to 14 months in the 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 no charges were filed against him until Wednesday.)

Some of Ridley-Thomas ’colleagues did not respond to The Times’ requests for comment.

Mayor Garcetti, who witnessed the revolutionary construction of homeless housing in North Hollywood, declined to say whether Ridley-Thomas should step down, calling it the “prerogative of the City Council.”

Garcetti called the allegations in the indictment “incredibly disturbing,” saying any abuse of public confidence for personal gain would be “absolutely unacceptable.” But he also described Ridley-Thomas as a passionate advocate of ending homelessness who did a good job.

“If the accusations are true, people are complicated, aren’t they?” Garcetti said. “They can do good and bad things.”

Count Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Roundtable on Urban Policy, said city leaders should not rush into making judgments.

“Ridley-Thomas has been a one-man institution 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 don’t just look to be their representative – they see him as a political leader.”

Taking Ridley-Thomas off his duties would have immediate consequences for the city. He has held public office for 30 years and is a very influential player in city politics, heading a committee tasked with fighting homelessness and poverty.

Ridley-Thomas has played a huge role in developing the city’s “street engagement” strategy, which sends field workers to homeless camps to persuade people to accept offers from shelters and other city services.

The councilor also helped rewrite a decree allowing the city to ban homeless camps in certain public spaces, adding language aimed at limiting the involvement of law enforcement agencies.

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 more than 25 years.

Mayfield said he hopes the community will continue to support the councilor. “If he claims innocence, why would he resign?” he said.

Councilor Paul Krekorian questioned whether a council member could continue to work on the job, and he is also facing a federal indictment. Councilwoman Nithya Raman went further, saying Ridley-Thomas should lose his jobs on the boards — at least for now.

Raman said she valued her time working with Ridley-Thomas on the homeless committee. But she also argued that the board’s work involved “massive” investments of money, which required public confidence.

“It can’t be run under the shadow of a federal indictment,” she said. “In the short term, Council member Ridley-Thomas should step down from his boards.”

The indictment against Ridley-Thomas comes at an unstable moment in city politics. Some elected leaders, who are either running for re-election or seeking a higher office, began to criticize each other during the election campaign and during public meetings.

Councilor Joe Buscaino became entangled with several of his colleagues over their approach to homelessness, sometimes traveling to their districts to confirm that the city’s efforts had failed. City Atty Mike Feuer, who is running for mayor, has rebuked the council for dealing with the overtime costs of Los Angeles police.

“You have more elected officials [at City Hall] shooting at each other. It’s a big deal and it’s played with council votes, council actions, ”said Brian VanRiper, a political adviser who has worked on the campaigns of several elected officials in Southern California, including Ridley-Thomas.

Asked on Thursday about the mood at City Hall, Martinez issued a statement saying her colleagues would continue to focus on “providing stability and providing services to our residents”.

“We’re going to stay focused on people’s work because Angelenos deserves it,” she said.

Times magazine writer Michael Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.

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