COMMENTARY - I, like many of you, have become aware of the indictment of Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas. I am not surprised by any of the events, and despite what he may say, neither is he.
No one should be surprised. Less than a decade ago, a University of Illinois study declared that Los Angeles was the second-most corrupt city in the country, just behind Chicago and its notorious history with corruption1. Chicago is where an alderman was indicted for not just stealing money but stealing money specifically designated for poor children and seniors. A warning for the old and the young; a growing number of our local electeds apparently want the top spot.
Sometime in August, 2008— As Ridley-Thomas and I prepared to face each other in the general election for the Second District seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors— one of my representatives informed a member of Ridley-Thomas’s campaign staff that our office had been approached by a member of the Federal Bureau of Investigation(FBI), seeking information on him, his campaign and former SEIU labor leader, Tyrone Freeman. My representative told the Ridley-Thomas staffer that, judging by the questions the FBI official was asking— it was best to relay the information to Ridley-Thomas, in hopes that he would take appropriate action to mitigate the potential embarrassment that many of his constituents feel now. After a short time, it became apparent to our campaign that Ridley-Thomas had no intention of changing his behavior or his relationships and intended to continue being the beneficiary of what would eventually grow to become anywhere between eight and 10-million dollars of questionable funding by Freeman and by former LA County Federation head, Maria Elena Durazo. Freeman is now an ex-convict. Durazo is now a California state senator. In order to keep from interfering in whatever investigation was underway, my staff and I remained quiet about this matter until now.
Ridley-Thomas’s 2008 defiance to stay the course is consistent with his self- centered and self-serving attempt to remain in office following his indictment. Back then, with few other ways to counter an historic and unprecedented spending spree by public labor unions, my campaign decided to make Freeman’s connection to Ridley-Thomas an issue. On August 21, 2008, I held a news conference to draw more attention to the suspicious funding and the immoral practice of having union workers foot his bills2. I was quoted in the LA Times the following day as saying: “Mr. Ridley-Thomas, how do you feel about benefiting from the money of people who are hovering just above the poverty line? Give the money back to the people who need it most.”
Despite my best efforts, our 2008 race would never become a forum for real debate of the important issues or a real election, for that matter. It was no secret that the public employee unions were out-raising me, but— at one point— they were also out-raising Ridley-Thomas’s own campaign nine to one. In 50 years of city government, I can tell you that when somebody invests more in you than you do in yourself, they’re going to want something in return.
That being said, again, it was no surprise that less than a year after he was elected to the board, the Times reported that federal authorities were investigating the union money spent on behalf of his campaign, as well as Ridley-Thomas’s role in hiring one of his longtime associates for a county project as well as his possible misuse of a public facility3.
With Ridley-Thomas as a Supervisor, labor got lucrative contracts and raises. Ridley-Thomas got a $707,000 office renovation4 during a budget crisis and a taxpayer-funded “man cave” at his residence5. And, his constituents just got screwed.
On the issue of Martin Luther King-Drew Medical Center, Ridley-Thomas originally called for its closure, only to reopen it years later, over budget and without trauma or emergency care. And, given the details of his latest scandal, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that he sided with the University of Southern California(USC) in their efforts to acquire public property that was valued in the billions of dollars— for free. Ridley-Thomas saw to it that the Coliseum, the Sports Arena and the surrounding parking lots were gifted to the troubled school in contrast to the desires of the overwhelming majority of people who live in the Exposition Park area. Since then, USC has scored financially from three years of Rams football games, a new soccer stadium and countless events. Meanwhile, the city, county and state haven’t seen a dime from the revenue-sharing plan USC proposed6.
One silver lining in Ridley-Thomas’s downfall is that it will hopefully lead the federal government to look into the cozy relationship between USC and our elected officials. With indictments at city hall and whatever scandal du jour is going on at the private university, it would seem that there would be enough malfeasance to justify reexamining the various deals that involved these shady public/private partnerships, like the aforementioned Coliseum land grab and the 2012 redistricting process, which ended with USC getting their boundary lines drawn exactly as they wanted and the elected officials involved— in some instances— getting jobs at the university. At USC, the problems have been mounting, from sexual assault involving the school’s doctor, George Tyndall to illegal drug use by a top school fundraiser, Carmen Puliafito. And, then there was the enrollment scandal that involved actresses, a fashion designer and now a sitting city councilmember.
Ridley-Thomas’s story is one that is common in law enforcement. You sometimes have certain suspects that you don’t need to chase down because, ultimately, their ego, combined with their need to come out ahead will eventually lead to their undoing. As Ridley-Thomas stumbled through ethical lapse after ethical lapse as a Supervisor, I would marvel at the callousness that he displayed while knowing that federal agents had shown interest in him previously. I knew that he and the law would intersect. And, it was never a matter of “if” but definitely “when”. For his actions were becoming less and less like a public servant and more and more like a criminal.
Upon leaving the city council, in 2015, I remarked that I worked more closely with criminals during my time in politics than I did while I was at LAPD7. And, today, due to the string of city hall indictments and multiple search warrants, I stand by that sad but true assessment. It’s also important to note that it is possible to be black, spend decades in government and never catch even a whiff of a personal corruption investigation or an indictment.
As far as the city goes, it will survive. We have had corruption scandals before, and we have come out of them better prepared for the next one each time. That being said, our city is in poor shape. To give you an idea of how bad things are, our paper of record is hanging the success of our homeless efforts on a man, who— can no longer vote on the council floor and may have his voting privileges taken away for the next several elections. Think about that for a minute…
LA is in an era of lowered expectations; so much so that when the Times endorsed Ridley-Thomas in his last race, they made note of the actions with USC that would eventually lead to his indictment but supported him anyway8. They downplayed it as a “questionable ethical decision”. And, in council, as his colleagues voted to, rightfully, suspend him, one councilman came to his defense, feebly trying to make the distinction between a good indictment and a bad indictment9. In all, three voted to save Ridley-Thomas's career. And, perhaps due to a coincidence or a show of legal empathy, one of those three was named on a federal search warrant at the beginning of the current federal investigation that’s sweeping our city10. Lowered expectations, indeed.
Though the Times’ endorsement of Ridley-Thomas and their depiction now of him as a savior for the homeless, waters down the charges against him, through the paper’s previous routine and consistent reporting of his “questionable ethical decisions”, it’s apparent that they’re not really surprised at Ridley- Thomas’s fall from grace, either. And, after all, they were prudently swift in calling for him to resign11. In regards to homelessness, it will take several years before even the slightest impact can be made. And, the people attempting to make that impact should not be distracted by the corrupt culture at a local university, their family troubles or their cellmates.
What I would hope is that instead of focusing solely on the alleged misdeeds of a public servant who seemingly lost his way, that we set our sights on his enablers; the people who thought it was worth several millions of dollars to put him in that office. The federal government is handing out indictments like Halloween candy to labor leaders all too often, most recently in Northern California12. Locally, the LA County Federation of Labor has always been the low bar, when it comes to following the law. Looking there would be a nice start. In recent history, one of their leaders seemed to be en route to an indictment but died before the case closed13. And, his successor was promptly indicted just months after taking the job14.
Holding these people and organizations accountable would allow voters some valuable perspective as they monitor endorsements in future elections.
BERNARD C. PARKS
LAPD Chief, Retired
LA City Councilmember, Retired
- https://blockclubchicago.org/2021/02/23/chicago-is-once-against-the- most-corrupt-city-in-the-u-s-according-to-new-study/
- https://www.citywatchla.com/index.php/archive/7622-bernie-parks-making- the-case-i-worked-more-closely-with-criminals-in-my-council-job-than-at-my- chief-gig
- https://www.lacom/california/story/2021-10-20/city-council-votes-on- ridley-thomas-suspension
- https://www.abc10.com/article/news/crime/former-california-union-leader- book ed-on-tax -embezzlement-char ges/103-cac538fd- aebe-4db1-841e-8fc5b241cc63