2023 YEAR IN REVIEW: Two political icons faced legal challenges in 2023

Wave Staff Report

SOUTH LOS ANGELES — Two longtime elected officials were in the headlines in 2023 for the wrong reasons.

Los Angeles City Councilman Curren Price was charged in June with embezzlement, perjury and conflict of interest for allegedly voting on projects involving developers tied to his wife’s consulting firm and failing to report the connections.

The charges were filed by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, which also accused Price of embezzling money from the city between 2013 and 2017 by having the city cover roughly $33,800 in medical premiums for his wife, Del Richardson, although he was still married at the time to Lynn Suzette Price.

The accusations against Price came three months after former City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas was convicted by a federal court jury on seven felony counts — bribery, conspiracy, four counts of honest services wire fraud, and one count of honest services mail fraud.

Ridley-Thomas was found guilty of participating in a scheme in which he received benefits from USC for himself and his son while he had a seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. He was acquitted of a dozen other charges related to a scholarship and a professorship that his son, Sebastian, received from the university.

Ridley-Thomas was sentenced to three years and six months in federal prison in August. He remains free on bail while his case is under appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which is expected to hear the case sometime next year.

Both politicians have held elective office for at least three decades.

Price was first elected to the Inglewood City Council in 1993. After a four-year term on the council, he ran for mayor in 1997 but was defeated. Four years later, he returned to the Inglewood council, where he served for five years before winning a seat in the state Assembly in 2006, replacing Jerome Horton. In 2009 he jumped to the state Senate, succeeding Ridley-Thomas.

In June 2013, Price was elected to the 9th District seat on the Los Angeles City Council, replacing Jan Perry. He has served in that seat ever since, rising to president pro temper of the council in October 2022 after City Council President Nury Martinez resigned her council post after a controversy over a secretly recorded tape.

Price stepped down as president pro tempore of the council as well as all of his council committee assignments when charges against him were announced in June.

Ridley-Thomas was first elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 1991, replacing Robert Farrell in the 8th District. In November 2002 he was elected to the state Assembly in the 48th District, replacing Rod Wright, who was elected to the state Senate.

After four years in the Assembly, Ridley-Thomas was elected to the state Senate where he served for two years before winning a seat on the county Board of Supervisors in 2008.

When term limits forced Ridley-Thomas to leave the Board of Supervisors he returned to the Los Angeles City Council in 2020, replacing Herb Wesson.

In October 2021, Ridley-Thomas was indicted by the U.S. Attorney’s Los Angeles Office for his role in a scheme that provided a scholarship and a teaching post at USC for his son Sebastian in exchange for Ridley-Thomas’ vote on county contracts that benefited the USC School of Social Work.

Marilyn Flynn, a former head of the USC School of Social Work, pleaded guilty to bribing Ridley-Thomas and was sentenced to 18 months home confinement and ordered to pay a $150,000 fine. She testified against him at trial.

His appeal next year are expected to focus on prosecutorial misconduct, misstatements of the law and other issues during the trial ultimately deprived the longtime politician of his rights. Issues to be argued by the defense include the allegation that the prosecution’s dismissal of two Black women from the jury panel during the selection process was the result of racism, Ridley-Thomas’ attorneys said.

There is no trial date scheduled yet for Price. In fact, he hasn’t been formally arraigned.

His last scheduled arraignment date was Dec. 15 and that was pushed back to Jan. 8.

According to the criminal complaint against him, between 2019 and 2021, his wife’s consulting firm, Del Richardson & Associates, received payments totaling more than $150,000 from a pair of developers, after which Price voted on matters pertaining to the companies. He also allegedly failed to report the connections or the money paid to his wife’s company on city disclosure forms.

“[The] charges against Councilman Curren Price are the result of a thorough investigation into allegations of public corruption,” District Attorney George Gascón said in a statement in June. “This alleged conduct undermines the integrity of our government and erodes the public’s trust in our elected officials.”

After his initial court appearance in July, Price issued a statement saying, “We are looking forward to engaging with the D.A. in the coming weeks and we are grateful that the court has given us time to do so. I want to thank my constituents and the entire city of Los Angeles for the outpouring of support I have received and I look forward to continuing to do the people’s business.”

Price’s statement went on to say, “As we said when the charges were brought, we believe that the charges filed by the D.A.’s office are completely unwarranted and that the facts will bear this out. I have always conducted myself, in and out of the public eye, with integrity and professionalism.”

Unlike Ridley-Thomas, Price was not suspended from the City Council when charges were filed against him.

He voluntarily stayed away from council meetings for about six weeks before returning Aug. 8.

Ridley-Thomas was immediately suspended by his council colleagues when charges against him were announced. He was temporarily replace by Wesson, who he had replaced. When constituents complained and threatened legal action, Wesson stepped down and was replaced by Heather Hutt, who was formally appointed to the City Council by the rest of the City Council in August 2022.

Hutt will seek a full term in office next year, starting with the March 5 primary election.