Cityside Column: Federal prosecutors get a conviction, but some wonder why the pol was targeted and question if justice was really served
By Jon Regardie - April 3, 2023
The conviction of Mark Ridley-Thomas by a federal jury on Thursday prompted an avalanche of headlines about the downfall of a “political giant”— a phrase that presents a strange dichotomy. Yes, it’s accurate and reflects the former District 10 councilman’s three decades in electoral politics. The phrasing also works to describe someone who, after learning the verdict, Mayor Karen Bass praised as “a champion for our city, a civil rights activist, a thought leader.”
But the description is also vague and a huge undersell in its brevity. To understand, consider the saga of a hospital in Willowbrook.
The Hospital Of The Future
In 1972, the King/Drew Medical Center opened in a predominantly Black portion of Los Angeles County. Though heralded initially, over time it lost its luster and then deteriorated badly. It picked up the chilling nickname “Killer King,” partly for a series of deaths on the premises. A withering 2004 Los Angeles Times series detailed horrifying medical lapses. The facility was shuttered in 2007.
Most public hospitals that close don’t come back. But Ridley-Thomas, who was elected to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors in 2008, sought to fill the void in the community (which over time became increasingly Latino). Any big project is difficult, and things become even more complex when there’s a medical component, which requires additional layers of approvals. Yet Ridley-Thomas engineered the creation of an entirely new health campus, stitching together funding and partners, including a new nonprofit to run the institution.
In 2015, the Martin Luther King Jr. Medical Center debuted, with a 131-bed hospital (smaller than its precursor), a menu of outpatient services, and a focus on overall community health and related development. A 2017 Politico article called it “the hospital of the future” and described the county investing “more than $1 billion in a revitalization effort that’s expected to bring at least 2,700 jobs to the area.”
Ridley-Thomas wasn’t solely responsible for the project, of course, or the nearby Willowbrook/Rosa Parks rail station that makes it accessible to those without cars. But no one else was rushing to create a replacement, and the project would not have happened without him riding herd and being a combination of a builder, glue guy and community advocate—not to mention someone who knows how to pull together money.
Two Sides of a Rift
Is this an effusive description of someone convicted by the federal government of bribery, conspiracy and five counts of honest services fraud? Sure. But that’s the point: The verdict has produced a rift in Los Angeles.
On one side are those who view Ridley-Thomas as the latest in a line of corrupt politicians, and place him in the same mud pit as disgraced former Councilmembers José Huizar or Mitch Englander. There’s no patience for a figure who, as prosecutors said during closing arguments of Ridley-Thomas’ trial, sought to “monetize” his office.
On the other side are those aghast at the verdict, and stunned that federal authorities targeted a man who accomplished so much for so many people across Los Angeles. There is the shock that one of L.A.’s most accomplished Black leaders faces time in prison for trying to help his son, and that he got taken down for moving forward on the kind of community-abetting efforts that he spent a career pursuing.
The feds see it differently. Prosecutors laid out the case that Ridley-Thomas, while on the Board of Supervisors, conspired with then-USC School of Social Work Dean Marilyn Flynn on a scheme to admit his son—former state Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas—to a graduate school program and provide him free tuition and a paid teaching job. They argued that the elder Ridley-Thomas funneled $100,000 from a campaign account through the school and then into a nonprofit that Sebastian Ridley-Thomas would run.
The payback, said prosecutors, would be county contracts that Ridley-Thomas would direct to Flynn’s financially troubled school. A strikingly young jury convicted him on the fifth day of deliberations, and the jury forewoman later told reporters that the cash flow helped tilt the panel. Sentencing is scheduled for August, though Ridley-Thomas’ legal team intends to appeal. In the meantime, the conviction means he loses his seat on the City Council.
As I wrote previously, Ridley-Thomas supporters thronged the gallery daily. I noted how this was strategic, with emails asking people to show up and the crowd positioned in direct view of the jury.
Daryl Gates, Homelessness and Beyond
It is important to note just why so many people were willing to skip work and give up their days to sit on hard wooden benches. It may sound cliché or corny, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true: They were there because of Ridley-Thomas’ record.
The list of accomplishments and the high-risk fights he has taken on is striking. During his first campaign in 1991 he confronted powerful LAPD Chief Daryl Gates, and during a televised forum called him, “a liability to the health and welfare of the community.” A law enforcement bookend came nearly three decades later, while on the Board of Supervisors when Ridley-Thomas battled fire-spitting Sheriff Alex Villanueva. He was on the right side of history on both occasions.
After the 1992 L.A. riots, Ridley-Thomas created the Empowerment Congress, the precursor to the city’s Neighborhood Council system. A few years later he launched the ahead-of-its-time Days of Dialogue, an effort to bring together diverse, multicultural groups to have honest and open discussions of thorny topics such as race.
Ridley-Thomas was often cast as an ally of labor, but he knew how to work with the business community. In the mid-’90s he was the lead advocate on the Council to get Staples Center approved, which became necessary when the Downtown Councilmember at the time bizarrely refused to support the arena. He later led a protracted and ultimately failed effort to bring an NFL team to a revamped Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum—hosting football was never the drive as instead, he recognized the economic benefits the project would bring to South L.A.
While on the Board of Supervisors, he fiercely advocated for a rail station in Leimert Park and pushed various parks and open-space endeavors. He was active and strategic on homelessness, which he knew disproportionately impacted Black residents; he co-chaired Gov. Gavin Newsom’s task force on the crisis and played a lead role in advocating for Measure H, a quarter-cent county tax that now provides more than $350 million a year for support services. Before the council suspended him after his October 2021 indictment, he was working on comprehensive Right to Housing legislation in the city.
Ridley-Thomas’ true gift, said Lisa Richardson, who served as his communications director for four years, was not winning outright power plays, but his ability to bring together the right combination of people. Plenty of pols have the vision—the roster of elected officials who consistently get things done is much shorter.
“He knows how to build a park, how to build a train station, how to build a hospital,” Richardson said.
The Full Force of the Federal Government
All this is not to state Ridley-Thomas’ resume for its own sake. But the idea is to look at why a portion of Los Angeles feels that a verdict returned is not justice served. Again, there are two sides. One lines up behind United States Attorney Martin Estrada, who after the trial declared, “When elected leaders engage in acts of corruption, our community suffers immense damage.”
The other side doesn’t disagree, but rather questions who is being targeted, for what, and why? No one disputes that Huizar captaining a racketeering enterprise that soaked developers for $1.5 million deserves the full force of the federal government. But as the defense stated in the trial, there was no need to bribe Ridley-Thomas to vote on efforts he had spent a career supporting. As for that $100,000, the testimony said it wasn’t even going to Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, but to pay someone else at the fledgling nonprofit.
The rift is real. Prosecutors may have celebrated victory, but Ridley-Thomas supporters have a sense of disbelief—it’s the idea that of all the people in politics doing all sorts of nefarious things, this is who gets sent to prison.
As Tavis Smiley, the owner of radio station KBLA and an ally of Ridley-Thomas stated in a post-verdict editorial: “I do not purport to know what’s next for MRT. What I do know is that his legacy of love and service to our community is intact.”