LOS ANGELES—The Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California (SCLC) has filed a lawsuit aimed at getting Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas reinstated to the Los Angeles City Council, from which he was suspended in October 2021 after his indictment in a federal corruption case.
Ridley-Thomas was the organization’s Greater Los Angeles chapter’s executive director from 1981–1991.
The move comes just days before the city council is scheduled to vote on appointing former Councilman Herb Wesson as a temporary replacement for Ridley-Thomas.
The lawsuit, which was filed on Feb. 18, alleges “the decision to suspend [Ridley-Thomas] contravenes the bedrock presumption of innocence guaranteed under California law.”
It also seeks to prohibit the city council from appointing Wesson or any temporary replacement to represent the 10th District.
The motion to appoint Wesson as a temporary replacement was introduced by Council President Nury Martinez and seconded by Councilmen Mitch O’Farrell, Paul Koretz, and Gil Cedillo. Martinez did not respond to City News Service’s request for comment.
Pastor William Smart, SCLC’s president, told City News Service on Friday afternoon that his position is that Ridley-Thomas’s suspension was “morally wrong, politically indefensible and patently illegal.”
“We will not accept an unelected being imposed on us as a community … we operate, as SCLC, in the 10th District and I live in the 10th District. We believe that the councilman was ousted out and we want him to get his position back.”
Wesson represented the 10th District from 2005 to December 2020. He also served as the president of the council before Martinez, from 2012 to 2020. The lawsuit notes that Wesson is “termed out” and alleges he cannot lawfully assume the city council seat because he already represented the district for three terms.
“With over 30 years in public service representing the residents of Council District 10, there is no better choice at this time than former council member Herb Wesson,” Council President Nury Martinez said after announcing her motion to appoint Wesson on Wednesday.
“Mr. Wesson cares deeply about the communities he represents and knows the district better than anyone. The constituents of Council District 10 need a voting member who understands their community to represent them within Council Chambers.”
The appointment must be approved by a majority of the city council, according to Martinez’s office. If confirmed, Wesson will hold the position through Dec. 31 unless Ridley-Thomas is acquitted or the charges against him are dropped.
On Wednesday, several people called into the city council meeting pushing for Wesson to be appointed to represent the district, noting that residents have not had a voting representative since Ridley-Thomas’s suspension on Oct. 20.
Ridley-Thomas’s attorney Michael Proctor issued a statement following the lawsuit’s filing on Friday:
“Mark Ridley-Thomas has been a lifelong advocate for civil rights. He believes that the right to accountable and elected representation is paramount to our democracy. It seems that that is what the SCLC’s lawsuit is about. As he has said from the beginning, he has served and is willing to continue to serve as an accountable, elected representative to the voters of District 10.”
The 10th District has been overseen by caretaker Karly Katona, who does not have voting authority. The city council’s vote to suspend Ridley-Thomas passed with three council members in opposition: Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, Councilman Mike Bonin, and Councilman Curren Price. Price said before the vote that his office had been inundated with calls of support for Ridley-Thomas from South Los Angeles residents.
The trial for Ridley-Thomas and former dean of the University of Southern California School of Social Work Marilyn Flynn is tentatively set to begin Aug. 9. The defendants are charged in a 20-count indictment alleging a secret deal whereby Ridley-Thomas—when he was a member of the county Board of Supervisors—agreed to steer county money to the university in return for admitting his son Sebastian Ridley-Thomas into graduate school with a full-tuition scholarship and a paid professorship.
Flynn allegedly arranged to funnel a $100,000 donation from Ridley-Thomas’s campaign funds through the university to a nonprofit to be operated by his son, a former member of the Assembly. The donation prompted an investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles that remains open, prosecutors said.
In exchange, the indictment contends, Ridley-Thomas supported county contracts involving the School of Social Work, including lucrative deals 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.
Both defendants have strongly denied any wrongdoing and promised that evidence will clear their names.
People can watch the City Council meeting Tuesday at clerk.lacity.org/calendar.