View Original Notice ? LA County leaders approve sweeping probe of contracts amid Ridley-Thomas allegations
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Oct. 19, unanimously approved an investigation — and sweeping review of what could be thousands of county service contracts approved by the board over several years — in connection with an alleged bribery scheme that led to a federal indictment against former Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.
The action comes after a federal grand jury indicted Ridley-Thomas, now an L.A. city councilman, on Oct. 13, along with a former USC dean, Marilyn Louise Flynn. The indictment alleges that a Ridley-Thomas relative received substantial benefits from the university in exchange for the politician’s support of multimillion-dollar contracts favorable to USC while he served on the county Board of Supervisors.
Flynn and Ridley-Thomas have both denied the charges, and vowed to battle them in federal court. Ridley-Thomas is scheduled to be arraigned on Wednesday, with Flynn to follow on Monday.
“The motion, in my opinion, is about restoring trust,” said Supervisor Hilda Solis, who co-authored the measure with Supervisor Kathryn Barger. “Protection of taxpayers dollars is absolutely necessary to preserve public confidence and to make sure government works for its constituents.
She added: “It’s fundamental that a public office not be used for personal enrichment.”
Solis said the action was an attempt to fulfill the board’s fiduciary duty to taxpayers.
The investigation by an outside law firm yet to be chosen will first look at the county contracts at issue in the indictment, and then — because of an amendment added by Supervisor Holly Mitchell — broaden the probe to all county service contracts, “irrespective of the district,” approved by the Board between 2008 and 2020, and which were for over “a certain amount,” still to be determined.
Mitchell’s call to expand the probe was approved after a robust discussion. The board sought to balance the need to get to the heart of any county breakdowns that could potentially have contributed to the specific allegations in the Ridley-Thomas case with the need to widen the scope to examine the process that led to all contracts of significant value.
At the core of Mitchell’s amendment was a concern that the county’s probe “does not cast an unfair shadow on the Second District and shift the focus away from the alleged misdeeds and the system that allowed for them to take place,” she said.
“If the county processes are such that they could have allowed for such service contracts to be approved by a full vote of the board, then I think we have a much bigger issue that should be fully investigated and addressed,” said Mitchell, who won Ridley-Thomas’ former Second District seat after he vacated it to run for L.A. City Council.
The county’s auditor-controller, Arlene Barrera, said the widened scope could potentially encompass several thousands of contracts, but noted that the firm hired for the probe could narrow that number down.
Barger supported the amendment while also emphasizing her books were open for auditors, in the spirit of accountability
“If they want to begin scrubbing the Fifth District, I will open up every single file I have, because I believe transparency is key and that this is not targeted at one district,” Barger said. “I think we have to have a healthy look overall about how this county does do that. And I’m hoping this is an opportunity for us to look at where we may need to make changes in order to prevent this from happening again.”
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl voiced concern about contradictory language in the initial motion, worried that a county investigation concurrent with the federal government could present interference for the federal case — a notion that County Counsel attorneys dispelled.
The 20-count indictment is sprinkled with references to the contracts and a handful of county and university officials allegedly in the loop in the alleged agreement between Ridley-Thomas and Flynn, a tenured faculty member and dean of the University’s School of Social Work from 1997 to 2018.
In exchange for his relative’s admission to the school’s graduate program, the 35-page indictment alleges Ridley-Thomas supported contracts involving the School of Social Work, including contracts to provide services to the county Department of Children and Family Services and Probation Department, as well as an amendment to a contract with the Department of Mental Health that would bring the school millions of dollars in new revenue.
“Defendant Flynn said that she would be meeting with County Official 1 ‘to discuss development of a Title IV(e) contract with the Department of Probation,’” read one alleged “overt act” in the indictment, referencing a letter between the two in which Flynn “memorialized” the exchange.
The contract at issue was the university’s contract with the county, which under Title IV(e) of the Social Security Act allows the county to use federal funds to compensate schools of social work for training and other services.
Flynn, whose social work program was strapped for cash at the time, discussed “the blocked movement of the University’s Title IV(e) contract with DCFS,” according to the indictment.
Ultimately, what Flynn wanted was a new contract between USC’s social work program and the county, a new contract between the school and the county’s probation department, and an amendment to an existing contract between the school and the county Department of Mental Health’s Telehealth program, a clinic were social-work students provided web-based counseling service to patients referred by the county, according to the indictment.
While Flynn allegedly brought in other USC employees to help get Ridley-Thomas’ relative into the social-work program, the indictment claims that the then supervisor introduced a July 2017 motion seeking an agreement with USC to “enhance services.” Another Ridley-Thomas motion, in October 2017, approved by the Board of Supervisors, was related to a program where an outside university, such as USC, would help train Probation Department employees, and in exchange the school would be compensated for the services.
Among the allegations in the indictment was that an email between Ridley-Thomas and Flynn that referenced a “County Official 2,” who prosecutors called a “high-level” official in a position to help Flynn get the amendment to the Telehealth-Department of Mental Health contract she allegedly wanted from the county.
The email allegedly said that that county official was “ready to go.” The indictment would go on to allege that Ridley-Thomas would continue over 2017 and 2018 to “exert pressure” on County Official 2 to “perform official acts favorable to the Telehealth-DMH contract.”
There was also a County Official 3, according to the charges, with whom Flynn met.
Ridley-Thomas on Monday said he had “every intent of fighting outrageous allegations and expect to be fully exonerated.”
Flynn’s attorneys — Vicki Podberesky and Brian Hennigan — said their client will be vindicated.
“Marilyn Flynn has devoted her entire professional life to the field of social work.,” they said in a statement. “She has spent over 45 years in academia and has worked tirelessly for the improvement and betterment of the social welfare network in Los Angeles and around the country. Ms. Flynn has not committed any crime and we believe that the evidence in this case will ultimately support this conclusion.”
The action approved Tuesday also instructs county departments to cooperate with federal investigators, which includes preserving all potentially relevant materials and information.