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LA politician, former USC dean indicted in bribery and fraud scheme

Federal prosecutors say a relative of LA City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas received significant benefits from the university in exchange for the politician’s support of contracts involving USC's School of Social Work.

(CN) — Authorities indicted longtime Los Angeles political figure Mark Ridley-Thomas and a former dean of the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work on federal corruption charges Wednesday.

In the 20-count indictment released by the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Central District of California, prosecutors say Ridley-Thomas and Marilyn Louise Flynn conspired in a bribery scheme to grant a relative of Ridley-Thomas significant benefits from the university in exchange for the political figure’s support of county contracts with the university.

The indictment claims Flynn, formerly a tenured professor and dean of the School of Social Work, granted Ridley-Thomas’ relative graduate school admission, a full-tuition scholarship, a paid professorship and the means to transfer funds from the Ridley-Thomas campaign to a nonprofit operated by the relative.

In return, prosecutors say Ridley-Thomas-- who is now a member of the Los Angeles City Council-- supported contracts involving the social work school while he was on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. According to the indictment, Ridley-Thomas supported contracts that allowed the social work school to provide services to the Department of Children and Family Services and Probation Department.

One particularly lucrative gain prosecutors claim the social work school received with the aid of Ridley-Thomas was an amendment to an existing contract with the Department of Mental Health, which allowed the social work school to rake in approximately $9 million each year.

According to the Justice Department’s announcement of the indictment, Ridley-Thomas and Flynn ostensibly orchestrated the scheme from 2017 to 2018. At the time, the relative of Ridley-Thomas was the subject of an internal sexual harassment investigation in the California State Assembly and Flynn was confronting a “multimillion-dollar budget deficit” at the social work school, prosecutors said.

The indictment claims that in July 2017, Flynn arranged for the hand-delivery of a confidential letter to Ridley-Thomas that “memorialized an agreement” they made in a previous meeting, committing to work with Ridley-Thomas’ relative and outlining the new and amended contracts she expected Ridley-Thomas to support in exchange.

The indictment does not identify the relative of Ridley-Thomas by name. In December 2017, Ridley-Thomas’ son, Sebastian, resigned from the California State Assembly. Los Angeles Times reports from 2018 indicate that Sebastian Ridley-Thomas was facing a sexual harassment investigation when he took a job at USC as a professor.

“This indictment charges a seasoned lawmaker who allegedly abused the public’s trust by taking official actions to benefit his family member and himself,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Tracy L. Wilkison 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 indictment also claims that Ridley-Thomas and Flynn worked to keep their agreement a secret, concealing from USC the funds purportedly funneled through the university to the relative’s non-profit.

“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,” said a university statement to Courthouse News. “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.”

Ridley-Thomas has been a fixture in state and local politics for decades, winning elections to both houses of the state legislature, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the Los Angeles City Council. Last month, he declined to run to replace Eric Garcetti as mayor. He also has longstanding ties to USC, where he received his doctorate in social ethics and policy analysis.

The university has been embroiled in controversy over recent years. In March, the university reached a mammoth $1.1 billion settlement with over 700 women who claimed they were sexually abused by a gynecologist in the campus health center. USC was also among the academic institutions at the center of the college admissions scandal, in which celebrities and other wealthy figures used bribes to procure their children’s admission into universities.

Ridley-Thomas and Flynn are expected to appear for their arraignments in the U.S. district court in the coming weeks, according to the official statement from the Department of Justice. They each face one count of conspiracy, one count of bribery, two counts of mail fraud and 15 counts of wire fraud. Each conspiracy count carries a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison, while each bribery count carries a maximum possible sentence of 10 years. Each of the mail fraud and wire fraud charges have a 20-year statutory maximum penalty.

Representatives of Mark Ridley-Thomas, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas and Flynn did not respond to requests for comment. The Department of Justice and University of Southern California declined to comment beyond their statements.

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