LA Mag: City Hall Scandal May Be Good News for Indicted and Unpaid Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas

LA Mag: City Hall Scandal May Be Good News for Indicted and Unpaid Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas

Cityside Column: Efforts to get the suspended councilman his pay heat up, with prominent Black leaders getting involved

By October 24, 2022

Two weeks into the Los Angeles City Hall meltdown, a few things are incontrovertible: Former City Council President Nury Martinez needs to pick a new line of work. Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León may refuse to resign, but their reputations are in tatters. Further down the scale of importance, no one has yet come up with a sticky nickname for what is cumbersomely referred to as the leaked racist audio recording scandal.

The mess has caused City Hall to examine some of its practices and beliefs concerning how L.A. is run. Yet for all the ramifications being explored, a few potential impacts of the scandal have been largely overlooked. That includes the fate of suspended Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas’ salary. The topic could move to the front burner with the change in council leadership and a sharp letter from a collection of prominent Black civil rights leaders.

There is a level of political irony here: In October 2021, federal prosecutors charged the District 10 officeholder with bribery and conspiracy. Martinez immediately shifted into turbo mode. A mere week after the indictment, and despite Ridley-Thomas offering to step back from public view, she used her power to orchestrate an 11-3 Council vote to suspend him (in the recording, the quartet can be heard discussing who might be a replacement). The next day, City Controller Ron Galperin announced he would stop paying Ridley-Thomas.

The speed of the current scandal makes the 2021 proceedings look like they were stuck in a lake of molasses. The world learned on Oct. 9 that Martinez had projectile vomited racist and hate speech at almost every group in Los Angeles. She gave up the council presidency the next day, and on Oct. 12 announced her resignation in what may be the world’s worst apology letter. The city has stopped paying her nearly $230,000-a-year salary.

Ridley-Thomas’ ultimate fate is unknown. Federal prosecutors are unlikely to go after a figure with such standing unless they strongly believe they will win in court. They allege that, while a member of the County Board of Supervisors, he conspired with then-USC School of Social Work Dean Marilyn Flynn on a scheme to provide Ridley-Thomas’ son with graduate school admission, a scholarship and a paid teaching gig. They assert that the politician in return intended to direct county contracts to the school. Flynn pleaded guilty to one count of bribery in September. Ridley-Thomas is maintaining his innocence.

Ridley-Thomas’ defense has been multi-tracked. Even though he has not been in City Hall for a year, a bevy of supporters, including a group of prominent South L.A. clergy leaders, have rallied to his defense. When Martinez strong-armed an appointment of Herb Wesson as the interim District 10 council rep, the clergy group and others filed suit, arguing that Wesson had maxed out his time of service on the council, and was no longer eligible. Two judges agreed and Wesson resigned, an embarrassing loss for Martinez. She was forced to go with Plan B, and after an initial rejection by the council, she was finally able to get the panel to approve making Heather Hutt the temporary voting member.

A related matter is the yanked pay. Ridley-Thomas launched a legal challenge this summer, claiming the city charter does not give the Controller the authority to withhold an elected official’s salary. Galperin says he does indeed have that power. The matter is more resonant than many might think, particularly with left-wing candidate Kenneth Mejia being the frontrunner in the Nov. 8 City Controller race. If he enters office with the unchallenged authority to stop paying public servants, there could be salary-related fireworks.

Ridley-Thomas, who in legal papers says city law forbids him from seeking other employment, is not the only one raising doubts. The Los Angeles Times in late July editorialized that the council was right to suspend the politician, but that pulling his salary stampedes on due process.

Additionally, four council reps have raised concerns. On Aug. 3, Paul Krekorian, who is now the panel president, and Gil Cedillo, who is now slimed, authored a motion asking the City Attorney to examine and report back within a month as to whether the Controller can pull pay. Six days later, councilmembers Marqueece Harris-Dawson and Curren Price put forward a similar motion, but this one asked for an opinion in 10 days.

Since then, it’s been political crickets. Why? Many would blame Martinez. The council president has tremendous power to determine what motions get an airing, and what get knocked into political purgatory.

Things could change, particularly since the new council president authored one of the motions. When KBLA radio host Tavis Smiley recently asked him about getting the suspended councilman his pay, Krekorian indicated the legal challenge complicates his ability to share details. Still, he told Smiley, “I will ensure that my motion to have this reported back to the council will be expedited, so we can ensure that we’re doing the right thing according to the law.”

A quintet of powerful national figures is also weighing in. On Oct. 17, a letter signed by Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, NAACP President Derrick Johnson, National Urban League President Marc Morial, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference President Charles Steele Jr. used the grim shadow cast by Martinez’s racist language to argue that the council took unnecessary steps. It asserts that the council has the authority to settle Ridley-Thomas’ legal claim and restore his pay and benefits.

“To do otherwise appears spiteful, vindictive, and deliberately punitive,” the letter states.

The letter was addressed to Mitch O’Farrell, at the time the acting council president. Expect O’Farrell to be sure that it makes its way to Krekorian.