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Looming USC Cloud Over Caruso and Bass

DEEGAN ON LA—Crime stopping is former Police Commission President Rick Caruso’s calling card. Criminal corruption is a shadow that is now drifting toward Karen Bass and clouding her mayoral campaign. 

Both mayoral candidates have strong USC links. Caruso, who recently stepped down as board chair, gifted his alma mater with two significant cash donations totaling $75 million. Bass is not a donor, she’s a “receiver”; she was given a free gift of tuition for the university’s social work program totaling $100,000. How and why that happened is tainting her. 

It’s apples and oranges: while the House Committee on Ethics “cleared Bass’ request to accept the USC School of Social Work tuition award”, that blessing is irrelevant if the Feds are wondering what she may have given back to USC as thanks for the favored treatment. 

The allegations are that Marilyn Flynn, when she was Dean of USC’s Social Work Program, freely awarded two politicos scholarships valued at $100,000 each. One went to Mark Ridley-Thomas when he was a County Supervisor, and the other to Karen Bass when she served in Congress.

The scholarship to Ridley-Thomas led to his Federal indictment on corruption charges that the scholarship given to him by Flynn was for the benefit of his son in exchange for lucrative county contracts.

Bass, as a result of receiving her USC scholarship, appears to be surrounded by the smoke of the fire that has already burned Ridley-Thomas and Flynn. The former dean has been indicted on federal charges of conspiracy, bribery, honest services mail fraud and 15 counts of honest services wire fraud.

“By awarding free tuition to Bass in 2011, Flynn hoped to obtain the congresswoman’s assistance () in passing coveted legislation, prosecutors wrote in a July court filing. Bass later sponsored a bill in Congress that would have expanded USC’s and other private universities’ access to federal funding for social work — ‘just as defendant Flynn wanted,’ the filing states.”

Caruso’s large cash gift to the university was philanthropic. The free tuition for Bass may turn out to be bad business for her, now that it’s mixed up in a criminal probe. 

The FBI is deep into a multi-year investigation of City Hall corruption that has so far indicted three sitting Garcetti-era council members. One (Mitch Englander of CD-12) has served time in prison, a second (Jose Huizar of CD-14) faces a trial set to begin on Feb. 21, and the third (Mark Ridley-Thomas of CD-10) is awaiting trial in November. 

Caruso warns: “We have seen that the scandals of this current administration are a distraction from the job at hand. We cannot afford for the next mayor govern under a cloud of corruption.”  

For his USC interactions, Rick Caruso got his name on a building. For hers, Karen Bass got her name in these L.A. Times and Daily News headlines: “Karen Bass got a USC degree for free. It’s now pulling her into a federal corruption case”  And, “LA mayoral candidate Karen Bass linked to USC bribery and fraud case.” 

Bass’ USC dealings have been labeled by the Feds as “critical to a bribery and corruption case”.

How Caruso and Bass view USC, one asking what can I give to them, and the other possibly measuring what can I get from them and for what quid-pro-quo, may be a window into what kind of Mayor each would be. Does LA need a mayoral giver or a taker? 

Voters will need to choose between a successful businessman that has never been a politico, and a politico that has spent decades in the State Assembly and Congress extracting what she could get from the system in DC, Sacramento, and University Park. 

The Federal corruption case centering on Ridley-Thomas, in which Bass has caught the interest of prosecutors, will go to trial in November, after the elections. 

The U.S. attorney’s office in LA said Bass is “At present and based on the evidence obtained to date, not a target or a subject of our office’s investigation”.

(Tim Deegan is a civic activist whose Deegan on LA weekly column about city planning, new urbanism, the environment, and the homeless appear in CityWatch. Tim can be reached at timdeegan2015@gmail.com.)