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Ridley-Thomas ties under scrutiny

Federal authorities investigating alleged union corruption have been examining a labor coalition’s backing of Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ 2008 campaign and whether his supporters illegally used city property and a nonprofit group in his earlier runs for office, people familiar with the matter say.

In addition, investigators have questioned people about whether Ridley-Thomas played any improper role in the hiring of a longtime associate by a contractor building the Expo Line rail project, according to the sources, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the inquiries.

No charges have been brought against Ridley-Thomas or the associate, Cynthia McClain-Hill, and federal officials declined to comment.

Ridley-Thomas did not respond to Times interview requests. McClain-Hill, a lawyer who owns a lobbying firm and has contributed thousands of dollars to Ridley-Thomas’ campaigns, said he had nothing to do with her being retained as a consultant by the three-company venture constructing the Expo Line that will run from downtown L.A. to Culver City. Ridley-Thomas sits on the board overseeing the enterprise.

“I have provided a great deal of advice to Supervisor Ridley-Thomas,” said McClain-Hill, referring generally to their relationship. “I exercise the very best judgment that I can to avoid conflicts of interest.”

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Last year, Ridley-Thomas’ opponent in the supervisorial election, Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard Parks, urged local and federal officials to investigate any links between Ridley-Thomas and a local labor boss, Tyrone Freeman. He did so after The Times reported on Freeman’s spending practices when he was president of a Los Angeles chapter of the Service Employees International Union. The Times accounts focused on union money paid to Freeman’s relatives, and did not address Ridley-Thomas.

Sources say Parks’ office later gave investigators the names of people to be interviewed. Parks told The Times that he has merely advised those who might be contacted by authorities to be truthful, and that he had “no personal knowledge” about any probe.

At least two people have told the federal authorities and an investigator for the city’s Ethics Commission that they saw political work performed at a city-owned building for Ridley-Thomas’ Assembly race in 2002 and his campaign for Los Angeles City Council in 1999, according to sources. The building is leased from the city for $1 a year by the nonprofit group Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education, or SCOPE.

Candidates are barred from using city property for electioneering. Federal law also prohibits nonprofits like SCOPE, a taxpayer-subsidized public charity, from participating in campaigns for elective office.

SCOPE President Anthony Thigpenn denied that the building or the nonprofit had been used in the Ridley-Thomas campaigns. During the 2008 election, Parks alleged that Ridley-Thomas’ supporters used the building for the supervisorial contest.

Thigpenn, who took a leave from the nonprofit to work on the labor coalition, denied Parks’ accusation at the time. On Tuesday, he said that SCOPE is permitted to do nonpartisan voter-registration and education work and that some people might have mistaken that for campaign activity.

The sources say investigators have been questioning people about the coalition, which county records show spent about $8.4 million on behalf of Ridley-Thomas. The SEIU local was a major contributor to the coalition, the records show.

State law barred the coalition, the Alliance for a Stronger Community, from coordinating its expenditures with his candidate committee. That’s because independent committees like the coalition are not subject to the same fundraising and spending limits that the law imposes on candidates.

Typically, independent committees spend far less on a campaign than the candidate’s operation does. The supervisorial election turned that ratio on its head: Ridley-Thomas’ own committee raised and spent about $1.3 million, according to records his campaign filed with the county.

The investigators looking into the Ridley-Thomas matters are from the U.S. Labor Department and FBI, the agencies that launched a criminal probe of Freeman after The Times reports appeared, sources say. Investigations of county campaigns usually are handled by state or local authorities. But under certain circumstances, federal prosecutors can assert jurisdiction over such contests.

Sources say the investigators have collected cellphone numbers of labor leaders, elected officials and others, but it is not clear whether the authorities have been focusing on possible coordination between the coalition and Ridley-Thomas, or on other campaign-related activities.

The executive secretary-treasurer of the County Federation of Labor, Maria Elena Durazo, who was also treasurer of the coalition, did not respond to Times interview requests. Thigpenn, who was field director for the coalition, said he never engaged in or witnessed coordination with Ridley-Thomas.

“That didn’t happen,” said Thigpenn. “I didn’t have any conversations with Ridley-Thomas. We may have talked about something right before the campaign got started, but I don’t think we had any conversations” afterward.

Meanwhile, sources say, investigators have interviewed people about the circumstances of McClain-Hill’s hiring earlier this year for the $862-million, taxpayer-funded Expo Line.

She was retained after Ridley-Thomas asked during a public hearing whether the rail contract should be canceled because the firms building the line had failed to meet a contract goal that they fill a minimum number of jobs with residents from the Expo corridor.

Other members of the Expo board, which is made up of elected officials from the county and several cities, also have complained about the contractors’ hiring record, officials said.

Executives for the project’s managing partner, Flatiron Construction, did not return phone calls by The Times.

McClain-Hill, a former member of the California Coastal Commission and state Fair Political Practices Commission, said that her hiring was entirely appropriate and that the jobs program was a small part of her responsibilities. “I was not hired for jobs,” she said. “I was hired to address a range of contract compliance issues.”

McClain-Hill declined to answer specific questions about her work, saying she did not have the contractor’s permission. She also would not disclose what she has been paid.

In July, McClain-Hill was hired by Unisys, which had been seeking a county computer contract. She would not discuss her employment by Unisys. A spokesman for the company confirmed that it had retained her but would not comment on whether it was for the computer contract.

McClain-Hill’s ties with Ridley-Thomas have financially benefited her firm over the years.

She has served as an officer in both a voter-registration committee that Ridley-Thomas founded and a community foundation that he chairs, state and federal records show. The committee, the African American Voter Registration, Education and Participation Project, paid McClain-Hill’s firm about $140,000 from 2005 through mid-2007, according to state records.

She said the payments to her company, Strategic Counsel, were mainly for salary reimbursements for a staffer who had been lent to the voter committee, and for setting up a website for a ballot initiative campaign.

McClain-Hill said her firm also has provided free legal services to the committee on voting rights issues.

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paul.pringle@latimes.com


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