Cityside Column: The retroactive pay is a huge win for the suspended politician, though big challenges lie ahead at his corruption trial
By Jon Regardie -December 7, 2022
Mark Ridley-Thomas is in the fight of his life. The political powerhouse, who has spent more than three decades in elected office, is awaiting a federal trial next year on charges of bribery and conspiracy while he was serving on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.
Yet even with the full weight of the U.S. Department of Justice bearing down on him, Ridley-Thomas just scored a huge win—albeit against city leaders and not the federal government. On Wednesday, the City Council, in a closed session, approved a settlement that gives the suspended District 10 rep his retroactive full pay and benefits. This comes more than a year after City Controller Ron Galperin yanked his compensation package.
Ridley-Thomas, who was suspended by his City Council colleagues in October 2021, filed suit against the city in July, with his attorneys arguing that the City Charter does not grant Galperin the right to withhold a charged Council member’s pay, which rings in at more than $220,000 annually. Galperin asserted he had the authority, but the city’s top brass clearly believes otherwise—the Wednesday vote followed a closed-door meeting on the matter on Monday with reps from the offices of Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Attorney Mike Feuer, who are in their final days in office. Clearly, the power players wanted this done before a new pack of pols takes charge next week.
This is a major win for Ridley-Thomas and a smack against some current and former forces in City Hall, including disgraced ex-Council President Nury Martinez. It’s also the second significant victory for the embattled Council member since his suspension—in the spring, Martinez’s attempt to install former Council member Herb Wesson in Ridley-Thomas’ post was rejected by two judges after a group of South L.A. clergy members, all firm Ridley-Thomas supporters, filed suit, arguing that Wesson had served the maximum time allowed on the L.A. Council. Martinez was forced to go with Plan B, maneuvering the district’s so-called caretaker Heather Hutt into the seat.
As with that win, Ridley-Thomas securing his pay came without him setting foot in City Hall. It’s a real political “how-ya-like-them-apples?” moment.
“We are pleased that the city, at the urging of the City Council, wisely chose to resolve this lawsuit amicably,” said Ridley-Thomas’ lawyer, Crystal Nix-Hines, in a prepared statement. “It is very clear under the City Charter that the Controller had no authority to terminate the salary and benefits of Councilmember Ridley-Thomas and Controller Galperin did so at a time when Councilmember Ridley-Thomas needed them most to mount his legal defense.”
Many will be surprised that Ridley-Thomas got the city to pay up. They shouldn’t be. That’s because Ridley-Thomas may be many things but he is definitely a fighter, as I wrote more than a year ago when the whole thing broke open. He is also an experienced and savvy pol who, while serving at the city, county and state levels, built up a sturdy network of community supporters who have rallied to his defense. Numerous local leaders probably thought he would shrink away after the federal charges were filed. They’re learning a lesson the hard way.
Many of those same people may also find it distasteful that he continues to get cash while awaiting his corruption trial. But there are legitimate arguments to keep the salary flowing. The Los Angeles Times editorialized in July that while a suspension was warranted, withholding pay infringes on due process and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
This influx of his salary paychecks does not mean things will end up just peachy for Ridley-Thomas. His road is rough, as in October 2021, federal authorities hit him with a 20-count indictment, alleging that while in his previous job on the Board of Supervisors, he conspired with USC School of Social Work Dean Marilyn Flynn to provide his son, a former state assemblyman, with admittance to the graduate school, a scholarship, and a paid teaching gig. Prosecutors allege that in return, Ridley-Thomas pledged to direct lucrative county contracts to USC.
The 83-year-old Flynn pleaded guilty to one federal charge in September, saying she funneled $100,000 Ridley-Thomas had provided from his campaign through the university and to a nonprofit operated by his son. A trial is set for March, and federal prosecutors don’t go after a fish this big without believing they can get a jury to convict. Ridley-Thomas maintains his innocence, as he has since the charges were filed.
The path to this moment has been rugged. Although Ridley-Thomas offered to step back from a public role after the indictment came down, Martinez was having none of it. Within a week she orchestrated a vote to suspend him; the following day Galperin announced that he would withhold Ridley-Thomas’s salary.
But like seemingly everything in City Hall, that move has now been soiled by the October release of the audio of a secretly recorded meeting with Martinez, Council members Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo, and former labor leader Ron Herrera. Although the quartet met in the headquarters of the L.A. County Federation of Labor to discuss how to maintain and enhance Latino power on the 15-member Council, they also segued into the fate of Ridley-Thomas—their confab took place days after he had been charged but prior to his suspension.
In the leaked audio, the quartet of powerful officials digs into the case, USC and Flynn. Martinez mentions a source who said that the university is cooperating and also notes that the city controller is in charge of any action involving salary; at one point, she states, “Galperin’s gonna fuck with this.”
In the ironies of ironies, however, this is a situation where Martinez taketh away, and Martinez also giveth. After Ridley-Thomas filed suit in the summer, four Council members, in two separate motions, asked the city attorney to weigh in on whether the city controller actually could withhold a Council member’s pay. But Martinez prevented the matter from being heard.
When news of the recording broke and she was swiftly forced to resign as Council president, everything changed. New Council President Paul Krekorian then opened the door to the matter being addressed and a motion, written by Council members Curren Price and Marqueece Harris-Dawson, quickly gained traction. Today, it brought about the restocking of Ridley-Thomas’s bank account.
Although this matter has been settled, the city denies any wrongdoing. But there may be a double bonus irony: Ridley-Thomas is getting a city paycheck and now Martinez is not.
The Ridley-Thomas trial will be one of Los Angeles’ most closely watched proceedings in 2023 and only then will we find out if the man can pull a hat trick to claim victory. But this will be his biggest challenge yet.