LOS ANGELES - Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas was suspended from office by a divided City Council Wednesday, hours before he entered a not-guilty plea to federal bribery and conspiracy charges stemming from his time serving on the county Board of Supervisors.
Ridley-Thomas did not attend the downtown Los Angeles arraignment hearing in person, but entered his plea via video. A status conference in his case was set for Nov. 1, and a tentative trial date of Dec. 14.
In a statement, the councilman's attorney, Michael Proctor, said, "Today marks Day One of due process for Mark Ridley-Thomas."
"While some have rushed to judgment, perhaps for political gain, we all win when we afford our brother and sisters the constitutional entitlement to the presumption of innocence," Proctor said. "Our lifelong public servant Mark Ridley-Thomas said today in court that he is innocent; I invite our community to breathe life into that right."
The motion to suspend Ridley-Thomas from the council was introduced Tuesday by Council President Nury Martinez and seconded by Councilman Mitch O'Farrell, the council president pro tem.
"The trial on the indictment has yet to take place and a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty; however, a council member who has been charged with public corruption cannot continue to exercise the powers of city office and preserve public trust," the motion stated.
Following the vote, Los Angeles Controller Ron Galperin suspended Ridley-Thomas' salary and benefits, saying he will "not use city money to pay the salary of an elected official facing federal bribery and fraud charges who is now legally unable to do his job." Ridley-Thomas earns more than $223,800 as a council member, equating to a biweekly salary of $8,575.84, according to Galperin's office.
Councilmen Marqueece Harris-Dawson, Curren Price and Mike Bonin opposed the suspension. Bonin urged the City Council to not even consider the suspension on Wednesday, saying it was "too early" and that the council hadn't considered the "full range of options," as the indictment is only a week old.
"Having read this indictment, having known Mr. Ridley-Thomas for 30 years, I think it is important to give him the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to defend himself before we rush to judgment," Bonin said. " ... For me, that 30-year career certainly justifies giving Mr. Ridley-Thomas the benefit of the doubt, hearing his defense and letting this be adjudicated before we rush to judgment and conduct what really is a political conviction."
Bonin added that the suspension would be disenfranchising the 10th district, which voted Ridley-Thomas into office last year. Harris-Dawson added that many constituents already knew about the allegations against Ridley-Thomas and voted for him anyway, as did members of the L.A. City Council, many of whom endorsed Ridley-Thomas. Many of the allegations in the indictment were reported by the Los Angeles Times in 2018.
Price said before the vote that his office has been "inundated" with calls of support for Ridley-Thomas from South L.A. residents.
"I choose to operate from a position of fairness, respect and decency, and I refuse to slaughter the reputation of someone who's got a 40- year track record of dedicated public service," Price said.
He added that the charges don't involve Ridley-Thomas' work for the city, echoing an argument made by Proctor in a letter to the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office Wednesday morning. Proctor told City Attorney Mike Feuer in that letter there was no legal basis for suspending the councilman, and he would explore "any and all legal action" challenging a suspension.
"Simply put, there are no allegations that involve Council member Ridley-Thomas' work as a city official," Proctor wrote in the letter.
Ridley-Thomas said in a statement after his suspension that he was "humbled by the support of my colleagues who did not rush to judgment and disappointed in those who did."
He accused the other 11 council members of stripping his constituents of "their representation, of their voice and of their right to the services that they deserve."
He also reiterated that he would fight the charges and clear his name.
Ridley-Thomas announced Monday that while he refuses to resign his seat, he was stepping back from his council duties and would not be attending full council or committee meetings.
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The 20-count indictment filed in Los Angeles federal court last week alleges that then-Supervisor Ridley-Thomas conspired with Marilyn Louise Flynn, 83, former dean of USC's School of Social Work, who prosecutors claim agreed to provide Ridley-Thomas' son with graduate school admission, a full-tuition scholarship and a paid professorship at the university. She also allegedly arranged to funnel a $100,000 donation from Ridley-Thomas' campaign funds through the university to a nonprofit to be operated by his son, former Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas.
In exchange, the indictment alleges, Ridley-Thomas supported county contracts involving the School of Social Work, including lucrative deals to provide services to the county Department of Children and Family Services and Probation Department, as well as an amendment to a contract with the Department of Mental Health that would bring the school millions of dollars in new revenue.
According to the indictment, the activities occurred in 2017-18, beginning when Sebastian Ridley-Thomas was the subject of an internal sexual harassment investigation in the Assembly, likely to resign from elected office and significantly in debt.
Sebastian Ridley-Thomas resigned from the Assembly in 2017, although he insisted at the time that his departure was due to health reasons, not a sexual harassment probe.
Sebastian Ridley-Thomas later became a professor of social work and public policy at USC -- despite lacking a graduate degree. He was later terminated over questions about his original appointment and university concerns about the $100,000 that was donated from his father's campaign funds to the School of Social Work, then directed to a nonprofit run by Sebastian Ridley-Thomas.
Flynn is scheduled to be arraigned Monday. Attorneys for both defendants have denied any wrongdoing.
Proctor said last week that at no point in Ridley-Thomas' political career, "not as a member of the City Council, the state Legislature or the Board of Supervisors has he abused his position for personal gain. Mark Ridley-Thomas has been in public service for 30 years, and his actions have been open to public scrutiny for a full three decades. Over those 30 years, he has demonstrated the quality of his character."
Flynn's attorney, Vicki I. Podberesky, said, "Marilyn Flynn has devoted her entire professional life to the field of social work. She has spent over 45 years in academia and has worked tirelessly for the improvement and betterment of the social welfare network in Los Angeles and around the country. Ms. Flynn has not committed any crime and we believe that the evidence in this case will ultimately support this conclusion."
During Wednesday's arraignment for Ridley-Thomas, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ruth C. Pinkel said the councilman is "very comfortable with how much power he can wield in L.A." She added that he is "a politician bartering millions of dollars of taxpayer money to get what he wanted" for himself and his family.
The 66-year-old Ridley-Thomas is a giant figure in local politics, previously serving on the Los Angeles City Council from 1991-2002, then serving in the state Assembly and state Senate before he was elected to the powerful county Board of Supervisors in 2008, serving until 2020 when he returned to the City Council.
Local civil rights activists have called for patience in responding to the federal charges against Ridley-Thomas. A group of activists and residents held a news conference Wednesday morning to speak out against the council's effort to suspend him, noting that he has already agreed to step back from council activities, and the suspension would leave the district's residents without an elected representative.
Suspending Ridley-Thomas comes at a critical time for his 10th district and the council as a whole, which is in the midst of a redistricting process that could dramatically alter the district's boundaries. The district includes areas such as Arlington Heights, Koreatown, Leimert Park, Gramercy Park, Mid-City, Wilshire Center and Baldwin Village.
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