Ridley-Thomas pleads not guilty to federal charges

A photo of the front of the Suzanne Dworak-Peck, a red brick building.
Former dean of the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work Marilyn Flynn allegedly accepted bribes from Ridley-Thomas. (Charlie McCollum | Daily Trojan file photo)

Los Angeles City Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas pleaded not guilty to federal bribery and conspiracy charges at his arraignment Wednesday in downtown L.A. Just hours before Ridley-Thomas’ plea, the L.A. City Council voted to suspend him because of the charges. 

Ridley-Thomas appeared virtually from his attorney’s office. His bail is set at $50,000. 

The charges stem from Ridley-Thomas’ controversy involving former dean of the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work Marilyn Louise Flynn.

The 20-count indictment accuses Ridley-Thomas and Flynn of a bribery scheme to benefit  Mark Ridley Thomas’s son, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, who received a full-tuition scholarship to the councilman’s alma mater and a paid faculty position, according to court documents

The charges allege that Ridley-Thomas funneled money to the University that was put into nonprofit organizations run by his son. In exchange, he used his position on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to support contracts and services to benefit the University. The indictment also accuses Ridley-Thomas and Flynn of concealing their actions.

Only two days after Ridley-Thomas said he would “immediately step back” from Council and Committee meetings, the City Council approved Ridley-Thomas’ suspension with an 11-3 vote in a special session.

City Council President Nury Martinez submitted the motion to bar the councilman from activities such as executing contracts or using discretionary funds. 

“The trial on the indictment has yet to take place and a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty,” Martinez wrote in the letter. “[However], a Councilmember who has been charged with public corruption cannot continue to exercise the powers of City office and preserve public trust.” 

Following the vote, L.A. City Controller Ron Galperin announced he will suspend Ridley-Thomas’ pay because he can no longer carry out his duties or represent his constituents.

“While Ridley has had many years of honorable public service, I 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,” wrote Galperin on Twitter. 

Only Councilmembers Mike Bonin, Curren D. Price — who represents the area encompassing University Park Campus — and Marqueece Harris-Dawson voted no on the motion. Ridley-Thomas was absent from the meeting because of his decision to step down from council activities. 

“The allegations in this indictment are serious, and they’re egregious, and if they are proven to be true Mr. Ridley-Thomas, the accused, should be punished,” said Bonin, who voted against Ridley-Thomas’ suspension. “He absolutely should be removed from office. Those allegations have not been proven true. The ink is barely dry on those allegations.”

Councilman Curren D. Price, the University’s representative who also voted no, said the Council cannot take a stance on the allegations alone. Residents have called Price’s office to express concern about Ridley-Thomas’ suspension, Price said in the Council meeting. 

“We have to pause and not rush to judgement,” Price said. “Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas has a right to due process, and that should take place in a court of law, not in the Council chambers. After all, the law states that one is presumed innocent until proven guilty. And I choose to operate from a position of fairness, respect and decency.”

In a statement released after his suspension, Ridley-Thomas criticized the Council’s decision but said he was “humbled” by the support of his colleagues who voted no.

“Eleven members of this Council have stripped the constituents of the 10th District of their representation, of their voice and of their right to the services that they deserve,” Ridley-Thomas said. “They have removed from action a member — and his team — who together are among the most productive and effective advocates on the crisis of homelessness.”

In a statement to the Daily Trojan, attorney Michael J. Proctor, who represents Ridley-Thomas, wrote that today is “day one for due process” for Ridley-Thomas. 

“While some have rushed to judgment, perhaps for political gain, we all win when we afford our brothers and sisters the constitutional entitlement to the presumption of innocence,” Proctor wrote. “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.”

In a statement to City Attorney Mike Feuer, Proctor said the City Council committed “an unlawful act” by suspending him. Proctor also said that Ridley-Thomas will continue to serve his constituents despite his suspension.

In response to the charges brought against Ridley-Thomas, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors will conduct an independent audit to review any contracts or policies at the center of the controversy. The external investigation will bring in a law firm to investigate those contracts or policies.

Flynn’s arraignment will take place Monday.