Column: Mark Ridley-Thomas is accused of taking bribes. That’s no justification for stopping his salary
Should Mark Ridley-Thomas be paid his salary as a Los Angeles City Council member — his exorbitant, more-than-$229,000-a-year salary — even though he’s been indicted and is awaiting trial for betraying the public trust by taking bribes and engaging in fraud and conspiracy?
Answer: Yes, he should.
For the record:10:33 a.m. Dec. 19, 2022
A previous version of this column said former Councilman Mitchell Englander was accused of and pleaded guilty to taking bribes. He pleaded guilty to one count of obstructing a federal investigation into his alleged acceptance of gifts from a businessman during a trip to Las Vegas.
You may not like it and I may not like it. You may think with some pretty good evidence that City Hall is becoming a cesspool of corruption and scandal, at voters’ expense. But the fact remains that the city was wrong to stop Ridley-Thomas’ pay last year and right to reinstate it last week — and to go on paying him while he awaits trial.
Ridley-Thomas stands accused of some truly egregious misbehavior. According to the federal indictment, he conspired with the former dean of USC’s social work school to steer lucrative government contracts to the school in exchange for giving his son a place in the graduate program with a full scholarship and a paid position as a professor.
Nicholas Goldberg served 11 years as editor of the editorial page and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and Sunday Opinion section.
Those are ugly allegations. That’s why after the indictment in October 2021, Ridley-Thomas was temporarily suspended by his colleagues on the City Council from his job (although he remains a member of the council).
City Controller Ron Galperin quickly announced that he would stop paying Ridley-Thomas’ salary, saying that no one indicted for public corruption and suspended by the council should receive a publicly funded salary.
That probably sounded reasonable to most Angelenos.
But Ridley-Thomas, who denies the charges against him, sued the city in July, saying the controller had no right to stop his pay. And a week ago, presumably fearing a loss in court, the council voted to restore his back pay and to reinstate his salary going forward until June 2023.
Unsurprisingly, that decision led to outcries of bitter disgust. “Crime pays for politicians,” tweeted one person. “The whole city is corrupt,” tweeted another.
But the council was right — not just legally, but morally as well. Right now, the allegations are only allegations. Ready as we may be (with our pitchforks out) to punish Ridley-Thomas for what he’s been charged with, we have an obligation to treat accused people as innocent until evidence proves otherwise to a jury.
Ridley-Thomas’ trial is scheduled for next year, and that’s when the truth — or the closest possible approximation to it — will come out.
Taxpayers will be compensating two council members in the same South L.A. district — the suspended Mark Ridley-Thomas and appointee Heather Hutt.
To do otherwise without a good reason is to deny the accused the presumption of innocence, a legal principle so basic that its roots go back to ancient Greece, Rome and even earlier. The fact is that many people accused of wrongdoing are ultimately exonerated, which is why we don’t punish them based on unproven assertions.
If Ridley-Thomas is convicted, then by all means he deserves to be punished for his crimes. But let’s wait and see.
Besides which, as a strictly legal matter, it’s not at all clear that the controller had the authority under the city charter to cut Ridley-Thomas’ pay, unlike the council, which had the clear right to suspend him from the job.
(Irritatingly, the city will now be paying two council members from the same district at the same time: Ridley-Thomas and Heather Hutt, who has been serving as a temporary caretaker in his seat.)
Cutting Ridley-Thomas’ salary may have been designed to send a message that “we won’t tolerate such dishonesty and misconduct; we’ve got things under control” — but, frankly, the councilman and his salary are these days looking like just a tiny piece of a much bigger problem.
The City Council is anything but under control. It’s a chaotic mess.
Marilyn Flynn agrees to plead guilty to bribing then-L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas in return for a USC contract with the county.
The current downpour of scandal is shocking.
Former Councilman Mitchell Englander was accused in January 2020 of pocketing thousands of dollars in envelopes of cash and receiving gifts, including meals, alcohol and an offer of the services of female escorts, from a local businessman. He pleaded guilty to one count of obstructing a federal investigation into his alleged acceptance of gifts and was sentenced to 14 months in prison.
Former Councilman Jose Huizar was arrested in June 2020 and charged with taking $1.5 million in bribes from developers in return for favors on their real estate projects. He faces 30 years in prison. His trial is scheduled for February.
Councilman Ridley-Thomas (whose alleged crimes were committed when he was a county supervisor) is awaiting trial.
On the not-criminal-but-horrendous-nevertheless side, Nury Martinez, president of the council, resigned in October amid outrage about leaked racist comments.
Councilman Kevin de León has been censured by his colleagues and is under extraordinary pressure to resign as well for his comments on the leaked audio recording. The disruptive protests that have resulted have made it difficult for the council to do its work.
Sexual harassment allegations have also been an issue, as have illegal campaign donations.
This is an embarrassment, a problem — and more than a series of one-offs. The council has only 15 members, for goodness sake.
A bombshell recording has thrown L.A. politics into chaos. What was really being discussed? L.A. Times reporters and columnists pick it apart, line by line.
By all means, the city should pay Ridley-Thomas. And if Huizar requires back pay, he too should get it. It’s not pleasant to pay people facing such unsavory accusations, but that’s the price of fairness.
But while we’re at it, let’s figure out why local government is so beset by sleaze, bigotry and charges of fraud, corruption and bribe-taking. What drives corruption in City Hall? Who is beholden to whom? Too much power (with too little oversight) is in the wrong hands, but how exactly does it work? What are the incentives for misconduct, especially with regard to real estate, development and campaign donations?
This is a moment of transition. Karen Bass is L.A.’s new mayor. Much of the council is new. And still more change is ahead as Martinez’s seat is filled and De León’s too if he steps down. And perhaps Ridley-Thomas’ as well.
We don’t have to live under a constant cloud of scandal. We should change the culture at City Hall.
A cure for the common opinion
Get thought-provoking perspectives with our weekly newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.