In the interest of full disclosure, I married into a (huge) family of UCLA Bruin alumni. I learned quickly (it was included in my wedding vows) that the University of Southern California (USC) was the ugly enemy and any mention of the institution typically was augmented with a reference to “The Stinkin’ Trojans” or some similar pejorative.
That being said…….
The corruption story deepens at this California educational behemoth. On Thursday, Marilyn Flynn, who served as Dean of USC from 1997 to 2018, struck a plea deal with federal prosecutors and has admitted to bribery. In the agreement, Flynn admitted that she arranged for a $100,000 payoff to then LA County Board of Supervisors member Mark Ridley-Thomas in exchange for a USC contract with Los Angeles County. It is alleged that the 6-figure payoff came in the form of a transfer of funds from USC to United Way California which was backing an initiative run by Ridley-Thomas’ son Sebastian. Sebastian himself was a California State Assembly representative out of District 54 until he was forced to resign after allegations of sexual harassment against him were made.
With the admission of guilt, the 83-year-old Flynn could have been subject to a ten-year prison term, yet the plea agreement included a recommendation that Flynn be instead fined up to $150,000 and be subject to home-confinement.
Mark Ridley-Thomas went on to become an LA City Councilman who was subsequently suspended under a cloud of corruption allegations and now awaits trial for federal counts of bribery, fraud, and conspiracy.
While these developments do not bode well for Ridley-Thomas in his trial slated to begin in a few weeks, the news has potentially beneficial political implications for embattled LA mayoral candidate and now U.S. Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-37). Bass has recently found herself at the center of another USC imbroglio where it has been alleged that the same former dean extended a full $95,000 scholarship–under dubious circumstances to Rep. Bass in 2011 so that she could pursue a master’s degree. Allegedly, Dean Flynn “provided input” to Bass in her first term in the House of Representatives on a bill which Bass ultimately sponsored that would expand USC’s and other private institutions’ ability to secure federal funds for social work.
Since Flynn will now not face trial, and it is quite possible that Ridley-Thomas may seek to forge his own plea deal in light of now diminishing prospects in a court of law, the circumstances surrounding Rep. Bass’ alleged quid pro quo with USC will not get a full airing in federal court at a time when her hotly contested mayoral campaign is heating up with wealthy real estate developer Rick Caruso.
While Federal prosecutors had refused to say whether Bass is under investigation, they did indicate that the circumstances surrounding her acquisition of her scholarship would be an integral part of the bribery case against Flynn as they would attempt to show a pattern of corruption within the USC Social Work program.
The timing of all this is fascinating to say the least.
Bass and Caruso were the top two vote getters in the June primary, yet neither received the necessary 50% of the vote to claim the mayoralty. This now sets a general election run-off scheduled for Nov. 8. Bass ran comfortably ahead of Caruso in the June primary and since then most polls had her running ahead of Caruso. With the circumstances surrounding the questionable scholarship “gift” to Bass, it is conceivable the polls could tighten with as many as a quarter of voters still listed as undecided just recently.
But, hold on.
Just when you thought the slimy news surrounding USC and California politicians couldn’t get any more base, the Bass campaign has hurled counter allegations against Caruso and his association with the University. Caruso, a USC alumnus himself, took over as chair of the USC Board of Trustees in the wake of the scandal involving university gynecologist George Tyndall and accusations of hundreds of instances of sexual abuse of student patients during his 30-year tenure at the school. Caruso negotiated a $1 billion plus settlement with students and influenced a restructure of university leadership. Bass alleges that Caruso covered up internal reports on the investigation which deprived Dr. Tyndall’s victims of transparency.
And while the latest scandals associated with USC are timely and intriguing in light of the upcoming LA mayoral general election, this is hardly the first rodeo for the university when it comes to shame and outrage. A Los Angeles Magazine article in 2019 wrote of former USC President Max Nikias:
“He ignored warning signals and wound up presiding over what may well be—once the full extent of its toxicity is revealed—the most corrupt university administration in America’s history of higher education. A run that saw an overdosed prostitute in a hotel room, an FBI sting of a basketball coach, disturbing sexual abuse allegations and cover-ups, and a shockingly blatant influence-peddling scheme. As a result, it now faces a mountain of pending settlements.”
Ironically enough, bitter campaign rivals Karen Bass and Rick Caruso shared a 2019 USC university commencement stage and sat right next to each bedecked in their crimson and gold graduation gowns sharing conversations and laughs. As alumni, they offered to the throng of graduates and their families the famous Trojan two-fingered salute, which most might connote as the signal for victory. History mavens better know the two-finger salute as an homage to ancient times and Homer’s Iliad where Trojan soldiers would cut off the first two fingers of their adversaries so they could no longer hold a sword and return to battle.
How appropriate. Politics–as evidenced by the LA Mayoral race 2022—is in fact a blood sport. And while USC Trojans will continue to use that two-fingered salute, one suspects that Los Angeles voters might be gearing up for a return salute of something less than two fingers—my wife’s family certainly would.