Ex-USC dean indicted in alleged scheme to get kickbacks for social work school

Dive Brief: 

  • A former dean at the University of Southern California and a Los Angeles politician have been indicted after a federal corruption investigation unearthed allegations they worked together to illegally steer public money into the institution’s school of social work. 
  • Marilyn Louise Flynn, who previously served as dean of the university’s social work school, has been accused of bribing Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas by helping secure a full-tuition scholarship and paid professorship at the university for his relative, reportedly his son
  • Ridley-Thomas, a Democrat, was on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors when the alleged scheme took place. He steered county contracts worth millions of dollars to the university’s school of social work and funneled campaign money through the institution to a nonprofit run by his son, prosecutors allege. 

Dive Insight: 

The investigation is the latest scandal that has marred USC’s reputation in recent years. These episodes have cast doubt over the fairness of admissions practices at the university and other top-ranked schools. 

The school is still facing the blowback from its involvement in the Varsity Blues scheme, in which wealthy parents were charged over allegations they bribed school officials and had fake athletic profiles created for their children to secure spots at USC and other elite colleges. Though the scandal grabbed national headlines, observers at the time argued that admissions at selective schools have always given wealthy applicants a leg up. 

The new case similarly accuses the university of giving a student special treatment because of his wealth and connections. Ridley-Thomas’ son served in the California State Assembly from 2013 to 2017. At the time, he was the subject of a sexual harassment investigation and significantly in debt, according to the indictment. 

Prosecutors allege that Flynn, the social work dean, reached a quid-pro-quo agreement with Ridley-Thomas in 2017 to give his son a full-tuition scholarship in exchange for the politician’s help with securing lucrative contracts for the university. Flynn also helped the son get a paid teaching professorship with a salary of $50,000 — waiving the usual hiring process, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. 

The duo also worked together to cover up “the bribes, kickbacks, and other benefits” the councilman and his son received, the department said. 

Ridley-Thomas and Flynn have both been indicted on charges of conspiracy, bribery, and mail and wire fraud. 

USC has been cooperating with federal investigators since 2018, when it learned about the payment funneled through the university from Ridley-Thomas’ campaign funds to his son’s nonprofit, it said in a statement. Flynn hasn’t been employed at the university since that year. 

“We will continue to cooperate with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and must limit comments because this is a pending criminal matter,” the statement read. 

Meanwhile, the Varsity Blues saga continues to play out in court, with two parents convicted earlier this month for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to falsely portray their children as top athletes to gain admission to USC and Harvard and Stanford universities.

Last month, lawyers defending the parents argued that they merely thought they were giving donations to the university so that admissions officials would take a closer look at their childrens’ applications, Bloomberg reported. During questioning, a USC admissions official conceded the university has a list of applicants that are of “special interest,” and university officials hope many of them will contribute financially to the school. 

However, the university said in 2020 that it has taken steps to reform its admissions process. For instance, all student-athlete files are now reviewed by at least three officials, and the head coach must certify in writing that applicants are being recruited because of their athletic ability.