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Donation from prominent L.A. politician roils USC, which referred case to federal prosecutors

Donation from prominent L.A. politician roils USC, which referred case to federal prosecutors
Assemblymember Sebastian Ridley-Thomas at a 2015 hearing in Sacramento. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

When state Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas resigned suddenly in December, it marked an abrupt halt to a promising political career.

The son of powerful Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas had enjoyed the backing of his father’s donors and the Democratic Party establishment.

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Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, 30, said at the time that unspecified health problems left him no choice but to step down. He needed “an extended period of time to recuperate,” he wrote in a statement.

Within months, the younger Ridley-Thomas reemerged at USC.

The university, which sits in his father’s district, hired him as a professor of social work and public policy. USC also gave Ridley-Thomas, who lacked a graduate degree, a scholarship to pursue a master’s in social work, according to sources familiar with the matter.

The unusual arrangement has come under scrutiny in recent weeks as the scandal-plagued university attempts to adopt more transparency in its affairs. Administrators launched an investigation and Ridley-Thomas was fired last month, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.

After the internal probe, USC approached the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles. The university told federal prosecutors it had concerns about a recent $100,000 donation from a campaign fund controlled by Mark Ridley-Thomas.

The gift to USC’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work ended up in the account of a nonprofit group outside the university run by Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, according to sources and public records.

USC campus
USC campus (Los Angeles Times)
USC briefs U.S. attorney

Mack Jenkins, head of the public corruption and civil rights section at the U.S. attorney’s office, confirmed that a lawyer for USC briefed him on the Ridley-Thomas matter and referred it “for criminal investigation.” He declined to comment further.

Sebastian Ridley-Thomas’ attorney, Lance Olson, said his USC admission was “based on his own merits” and went through “normal channels.” As for Ridley-Thomas’ faculty job, Olson said USC’s offer letter stated his client was hired with the “enthusiastic recommendation of the faculty.”

A lawyer for Mark Ridley-Thomas said the supervisor was “surprised to learn that his donation to USC has become an issue.”

“We do not believe that it raises any legal or ethical issues, and it had nothing to do with his son’s scholarship or employment at the university,” attorney Stephen Kaufman said.

USC’s board of trustees learned of Ridley-Thomas’ donation last month and was working with federal authorities, board Chairman Rick Caruso said.

“I am disturbed and concerned by these allegations and people will be held accountable for their behavior, as appropriate,” Caruso said in a statement issued by USC.

“The university disclosed this matter promptly to the United States Attorney’s Office and is cooperating with them. The university was not able to disclose this matter to our community sooner in order to avoid jeopardizing any potential government investigation.”

The Times based this account on public records, university correspondence and interviews with people familiar with the situation. The newspaper provided USC a summary of its reporting; the university corrected minor points but otherwise did not dispute it.

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A new job for ex-politicians

When USC hired Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, it appointed him “professor of practice of policy and social work.” The university bestows the title “professor of practice” on instructors who may not have typical academic credentials but have “demonstrated excellence and effectiveness” professionally, according to the faculty handbook.

Over the years, USC’s public policy school had become a landing place for several notable civic leaders, including former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, retired Gen. David Petraeus and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The school did not issue a news release when Ridley-Thomas started, and the date of his hire is not clear. A biography posted April 9 on the Sol Price School of Public Policy website and since removed described Ridley-Thomas as “a millennial servant-leader” who “works with university stakeholders to advance knowledge of diverse populations, intersectional research, the millennial generation, and innovative public policy.”

USC declined to disclose his salary.

Several faculty at the public policy and the social work schools said they were not told of his hiring and had not seen him on campus.

An influential alumnus

His father was well-known at USC. Mark Ridley-Thomas received a PhD in social ethics from there in 1989 and served on the City Council and in the state Legislature before being elected supervisor in 2008.

The five county supervisors wield enormous influence in L.A. In addition to representing the interests of more than 2 million residents, Ridley-Thomas serves on the boards of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Memorial Coliseum Commission, which oversees the taxpayer-owned stadium that is home to Trojan football.

As the largest private employer in the county, USC has frequent dealings with the supervisors. At civic events and university fundraisers, Ridley-Thomas was often in the company of C.L. Max Nikias, USC’s president. Nikias conferred an honorary degree on the supervisor last year, and in May, Ridley-Thomas delivered the public policy school’s commencement address.

In addition to hiring Sebastian Ridley-Thomas onto the faculty, USC awarded him a scholarship to pursue graduate study, the sources said. Tuition rates listed on USC’s website indicate the value of a scholarship for a master’s degree in social work could exceed $100,000.

USC did not respond to questions about whether Nikias or any other campus leaders played a role in Ridley-Thomas’ scholarship or faculty appointment.

It is unclear what work Ridley-Thomas did at USC or whether he took any classes.

The professorship was not his only job. An online resume also listed him as the director of the Policy, Research and Practice Initiative, a new think tank with nonprofit status through a relationship with the United Ways of California.

A $100,000 donation

This spring, the supervisor’s personal campaign fund — Mark Ridley-Thomas Committee for a Better L.A. — gave $100,000 to the USC social work school, according to public filings.

After USC received the money, the school’s dean, Marilyn Flynn, reached out to Peter Manzo, the chief executive of United Ways of California. She told him USC was sending a $100,000 donation to be put in the account of PRPI, the think tank run by Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, according to Manzo and emails reviewed by The Times.

“Supervisor Ridley Thomas gave me your contact information,” Flynn wrote in a May 4 email. “I think we can expedite processing so that funds from USC will be available to the United Way by May 18th IF we can begin today.”

Flynn had worked closely with the supervisor over her more than two decades leading the school. In 2013, Mark Ridley-Thomas named her to serve on the county’s blue-ribbon commission to improve child protection services. An outgrowth of the commission was a program developed by Flynn and Ridley-Thomas’ office in which the county paid USC’s social work school to provide counseling services to at-risk youth. Since 2016, USC has received more than $1 million through the contract.

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Manzo said it was unusual for USC to donate to his organization, a statewide advocacy group. Typically, he said, L.A. donors gave to the local United Way of Greater Los Angeles. He said he assumed USC was interested in PRPI’s efforts to study African Americans throughout California. Manzo said he was never informed Ridley-Thomas’ campaign fund was the source of the money.

Mark Ridley-Thomas
Mark Ridley-Thomas (Los Angeles Times)

“My impression was that [Sebastian Ridley-Thomas has] got a good project, and they are trying to do the right thing,” Manzo said.

USC sent the money to PRPI through the United Ways on May 8, according to university correspondence.

Manzo said that as of last week, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas had not personally received any of the money. The only funds spent by PRPI, he said, went to hire an associate director, Zaneta Smith, who had previously worked for the assemblyman. She referred questions to Sebastian Ridley-Thomas.

Mark Ridley-Thomas’ attorney, Kaufman, said the contribution “was a result of organic discussions” between him and the dean “about how the school could help address the lack of academic focus on the needs of African Americans.”

Following USC’s direction

“The supervisor followed USC’s directions in how the donation was made,” he said.

A concerned employee went to the university’s compliance office in June and reported “alleged inappropriate financial transactions and agreements” involving Flynn and an elected official, Caruso said late Wednesday in a letter to “members of the USC family.”

The report came as the university was continuing to grapple with an uproar over USC’s handling of former campus gynecologist Dr. George Tyndall.

Faculty and students had accused president Nikias and his administration of covering up or ignoring problems. After Nikias agreed to step down in May, Caruso, then newly elected as board chair, proclaimed that transparency would be “of paramount importance” going forward.

The university “immediately launched an investigation and escalated the matter to the university leadership,” Caruso said in his letter. “We are sincerely grateful that this individual chose to come forward, enabling us to take immediate and appropriate action.”

Flynn was moved out of the dean’s post in June. Later, she was placed on administrative leave, according to sources and university records. She declined to comment.

The university also sought advice from former acting U.S. Atty. Stephanie Yonekura, who oversaw public corruption cases in L.A. before entering private practice in 2015.

Yonekura reviewed the evidence and, according to federal prosecutor Jenkins, decided it merited a report to her former colleagues at the U.S. attorney’s office. Yonekura did not return a call seeking comment.

USC has asked the United Ways of California to return the donation.

“Based on recently discovered facts, USC believes the donation was made in contravention of USC policy and procedure,” wrote John Clapp, the interim dean of the social work school, in a July 17 letter.

Manzo said he spoke to Sebastian Ridley-Thomas about USC’s request and “he said he was going to look into it.”

Ridley-Thomas’ attorney said that neither his scholarship nor his faculty position was tied to any donations and that “we strongly believe USC’s decision to terminate him was erroneous and precipitous. We are now actively considering legal remedies.”

Times staff writers Nina Agrawal, Paul Pringle and Melanie Mason contributed to this report.

11:20 p.m.: This article was updated with statements by Rick Caruso from a letter issued late Wednesday to USC faculty and staff.

This article was originally published at 10:45 p.m.

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