Federal prosecutors recently filed a 20-count indictment against Los Angeles city councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, a career politician who has held various local and state offices for 30 years. The indictment comes three years after the Los Angeles Times reported that the University of Southern California had awarded a scholarship to Ridley-Thomas’s son, Sebastian, and appointed him professor at its school of social work while Ridley-Thomas was completing his term on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. According to filed documents, the FBI alleges that Ridley-Thomas channeled campaign money through the university into a nonprofit run by his son. He is charged with conspiracy, bribery, and mail fraud.
The case is a reminder of just how pervasive corruption is in Los Angeles. That the alleged crimes took place while Ridley-Thomas was on the Board of Supervisors is especially troublesome, given that the role of a supervisor is to oversee the county purse. Ridley-Thomas is the third Los Angeles city councilman to face federal corruption charges in the past two years. Former councilman Mitchell Englander was arrested in March 2020 on charges of obstructing an investigation into gifts he received at casinos and sentenced to 14 months in prison. Three months later, prosecutors alleged that councilman Jose Huizar led a criminal business that included bribery and money laundering and involved several property developers. He has since resigned and is awaiting trial.
The councilman can’t claim that he is a mere public servant seeking to earn a living. In Los Angeles, councilmembers earn nearly $300,000 annually in salary and benefits—more than any member of Congress. Each of the 15 councilmembers has a staff of about 24, also handsomely paid and perked.
Maybe the corruption happens because political power is concentrated in too few hands. Only 15 councilmembers represent a population of 4 million. City attorney Mike Feuer, a declared candidate for mayor in 2022, said that if elected, he would pursue a ballot measure to double the number of city council districts, slash the salaries of each councilmember in half to about $112,000, and cut office budgets in half. His proposal also would reduce from three to two the number of four-year terms a councilmember can serve. Tinkering around the edges, though, probably won’t change the behavior of those who spend their careers for the government. Ridley-Thomas has spent 30 years on the public dime.
Los Angeles political and community leaders have expressed amazement at the corruption allegations against Ridley-Thomas, one of the city’s best-known and longest-serving officials. Councilman Joe Buscaino, another mayoral candidate, tweeted that he was “shocked, upset and disgusted” by the indictment: “These accusations are ruining the entire reputation of the LA City Council, and therefore Ridley-Thomas should resign immediately from his position.” Congresswoman Karen Bass, also planning to run for mayor, says that everyone deserves a fair trial but has removed all pictures of Ridley-Thomas on her website. Some speculate that Bass and Ridley-Thomas had discussed a seat-swapping, in which she would run for mayor and he would run for her vacated congressional seat. As for Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, he has yet to mention the case; no doubt he, too, is shocked.
What about the Los Angeles Times, which broke this story three years ago? Last year, attorney and community leader Grace Yoo, a first generation Korean-American who had spent the better part of 20 years advocating for under-represented groups and individuals, challenged Ridley-Thomas for city council to represent the tenth district. Yoo ran on a reform platform, directly challenging Ridley-Thomas’s conduct in office. Yet the Times editorial board endorsed Ridley-Thomas, praising his leadership: “For this open seat, no other candidate in the race can beat Ridley-Thomas’ experience, knowledge and long list of accomplishments.”
All this means that corruption in L.A. is unlikely to stop. A lawyer representing the councilman said that Ridley-Thomas “was shocked by the federal allegations leveled against him, and with good reason. They are wrong, and we look forward to disproving them.” But most Angelenos are used to this kind of denial in the face of rising crime, homelessness, and a soaring cost of living.
Ridley-Thomas was arraigned on October 25. A federal prosecutor noted that the case was part of an “ongoing” investigation. Until sweeping reform is enacted, L.A. will continue to round up the usual suspects every time the FBI raids city hall.
Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images