Conspiracy goes deeper than Ridley-Thomas

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By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Contributing Columnist

“University official No. 1,” “University Official No. 2,” “University Official No, 3,” “County Official 1,” County Official 2” and so on.

The designation pops up repeatedly in the 35-page 20-count indictment against Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas.

Ridley-Thomas is charged with bribery and conspiracy. He has issued a statement professing his innocence and made it clear he will not bow to demands from some quarters that he resign from his seat on the City Council.

The allegations against Thomas are heavy-duty stuff. The federal prosecutor’s probe stretched back over four years.

I read every page of the federal indictment, word for word, line for line and the naming of USC officials and L.A. County administrative officers not by name but by number was near smoking gun proof that if there was a criminal conspiracy, as prosecutors contend, then there were others, maybe many others, involved. It was a classic case once more of the old Nixon Watergate quip, “what did he know and when did he know it.”

In this case, the “he” is not Ridley-Thomas. The “he” is the unnamed officials, both at USC and within the county, that may have known of the alleged conspiracy and what part did they play, if any, in aiding and abetting the alleged conspiracy.

Conspiracy by its very definition is not the act of one person, but involves a tangled web of players, enablers and facilitators. All play an integral role in any criminal activity.

In the case of the alleged Ridley-Thomas conspiracy, it would have to involve university officials who had to know and approve the funding that the department received in exchange for alleged favoritism.

At the same time, Los Angeles County administrative officials are charged with oversight, review and ultimate approval of funds that are allocated for contracts and programs backed by the county. Public money is supposedly not shelled out without that approval.

Then there are the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. When a motion is made to approve a contract, again involving spending public funds, the motion must be voted on and approved by the full board of five supervisors.

Ridley-Thomas is only one supervisor. What about the other four? Did they scrutinize the money that was ladled out to USC for alleged illicit use? If they did, what did they know about how the money would be used?

Did they fulfill their sworn duty to ensure that all public monies are spent on legal and authorized contracts for goods and services? This strikes to the heart of an issue that has festered for years and has more than once plopped the supervisors on the public hot seat. That is their penchant for making the award of major financial contracts behind closed doors, in executive sessions. Put bluntly, in secret.

The public knows little to nothing about these decisions that involve tens of millions of taxpayer dollars. That leaves the Board of Supervisors wide open to the charge of nepotism, cronyism and routine rubber-stamping of crucial money decisions that affect the pocketbook and the lives of county residents.

Now there was this especially revealing line in the federal indictment against Thomas.

“In furtherance of the conspiracy and to accomplish the objects of the conspiracy … others known and unknown to the Grand Jury committed and caused to be committed various overt acts.” This clearly says that not only were there others involved, but the others are known to federal prosecutors.

The logical question is if they are known, why are they not named? If they are known and their role in the alleged conspiracy is strongly hinted at, will federal prosecutors delve deeper and probe their role in the scandal?

Singling out one person, even if that person ultimately is proven guilty of the charges, is not fair or just. In fact, it leaves prosecutors wide open to the charge that they are cherry-picking the softest of soft targets for prosecution. In this case, Ridley-Thomas.

He is arguably the highest-profile local Black elected official. And at the same time, this lets others who were involved in the alleged conspiracy skip away scot-free.

Going after top USC officials or top L.A. County administrative officials is a tough slog since it involves going after well insulated and legally protected individuals. They can and do hide behind the cloak of bureaucratic anonymity.

Ridley-Thomas will have his day in court and the foundational principle of American legal jurisprudence, that an individual is innocent until prosecutors prove guilt must apply. However, the finger pointing by the feds at so many names involved in the alleged conspiracy, if only by number, casts a major cloud over the case.

It’s up to federal prosecutors to lift that cloud. The only way that can be done is to name the names of others that they say are involved. If their criminal involvement can be proven, then bring a case against them, too. Anything less makes a mockery of the criminal justice system.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is “Bring Back the Poll Tax! — The GOP War on Voting Rights” (Middle Passage Press). He also is the host of the weekly Earl Ofari Hutchinson Show on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.

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