Wave Wire Services
LOS ANGELES — The Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California is seeking permission from the state attorney general to continue its lawsuit to stop former L.A. City Council President Herb Wesson from returning to the council in place of suspended Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, an attorney for the group said.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mary Strobel cleared the way March 17 for Wesson to begin serving as a temporary replacement for Ridley-Thomas, who was suspended following his indictment on federal corruption charges.
The SCLC of Southern California had challenged Ridley-Thomas’ suspension and Wesson’s appointment in a lawsuit last month.
However, Strobel did not rule on whether Wesson — who previously represented the district before being termed out — is eligible to serve on the City Council again.
Strobel said the SCLC needs permission from California Attorney General Rob Bonta before the case can continue, according to SCLC lawyer John Sweeney.
Sweeney said at a news conference March 18 that he filed papers with Bonta’s office and is seeking to get the matter expedited. Sweeney added he hopes the case will continue next month.
Strobel had issued a temporary restraining order on Feb. 24 preventing Wesson, who was sworn in two days earlier, from filling Ridley-Thomas’ seat. But, she declined to extend the order in the form of an injunction March 17, effectively lifting the temporary restraining order and allowing Wesson to begin serving.
The SCLC lawsuit is aimed at reinstating Ridley-Thomas to the council. Ridley-Thomas, who was the executive director of the organization’s Greater Los Angeles chapter from 1981-1991, was suspended in October following the federal indictment.
Pastor William Smart, SCLC’s president, told City News Service in February he believes Ridley-Thomas’ suspension was “morally wrong, politically indefensible and patently illegal.”
Wesson represented the 10th District from 2005 to December 2020. He also served as the president of the council from 2012 to 2020. The lawsuit noted that Wesson is “termed out” and alleged he cannot lawfully assume the council seat because he already represented the district for three terms.
The motion to appoint Wesson as a temporary replacement for Ridley-Thomas was unanimously approved by the council on Feb. 22. According to the appointment, Wesson is supposed to hold the position through Dec. 31 unless Ridley-Thomas is acquitted or the charges against him are dropped.
“Throughout the emails I received and numerous meetings I engaged in with the residents of the 10th District, the community overwhelmingly suggested that former Councilmember Herb Wesson should serve as the appointee for Council District 10,” Council President Nury Martinez said in a statement March 17.
“The judge previously ruled that the council absolutely had the authority to suspend Councilmember Ridley-Thomas, and she denied the petitioners’ request to prevent Mr. Wesson from serving as councilmember for the 10th District. The people of the 10th deserve a vote on this council and today we gave that to them.”
Since Ridley-Thomas’ suspension, the 10th District has been overseen by caretaker Karly Katona, who served as Ridley-Thomas’ chief of staff. Katona has no voting authority. The council’s vote to suspend Ridley-Thomas passed with three council members in opposition: Marqueece Harris-Dawson, Mike Bonin and Curren Price. Price said before the vote that his office had been inundated with calls of support for Ridley-Thomas from South L.A. residents.
The trial for Ridley-Thomas and former dean of the USC 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 in which 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’ campaign funds through the university to a nonprofit to be operated by his son, a former member of the state 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.