Scandals + USC = Controversy in Mayoral Campaigns

Not since President Richard Nixon’s “USC Mafia” was on the center media stage has the University of Southern California received so much attention around a political election.  Unfortunately for USC, none of the attention is good attention.

Candidates for Los Angeles City Mayor, Karen Bass and Rick Caruso, both received degrees and have been involved professionally with the university.  Now they both are embroiled in USC related controversies.

Caruso Chaired the USC Board of Trustees from 2018 until February 2022 when he resigned shortly after announcing his campaign for Mayor.  He remains a member of the Board.  During his tenure as Chair, USC faced numerous scandals, including a questionable response and investigation into a USC gynecologist who has been accused of sexually assaulting hundreds of women.

Bass now finds herself entangled in a controversy that involves her acceptance of a $95,000 scholarship from USC, offered by the same Dean, Marilyn Flynn, who approved the scholarship for former Assemblymember Sebastian Ridley-Thomas.  Ridley-Thomas is the son of suspended L.A. City Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas.  As Calpeek readers know, the senior Ridley-Thomas has been indicted on corruption charges related to dealings with USC, including the awarding of his son’s scholarship.  Flynn has also been indicted.

Bass accepted the scholarship during her first term in Congress.  According to the L.A. Times, “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.”

Adding some more fuel to the accusations, the federal prosecutors leading the Ridley-Thomas investigation stated that Bass’ acceptance of the scholarship is “critical” and “relevant” to the public corruption case.  Although they also stated that Bass is not under investigation, the statement gave Caruso’s campaign the sound bite they needed.  In response, Caruso asked “Did she expect some favor in return to USC?”

Bass has denied any quid pro quo: “The only reason I studied nights and weekends for a master’s degree was to become a better advocate for children and families — period.”  In 2011, Bass sought and was given an exemption from the House Committee on Ethics regarding gifts to members of Congress.  Unfortunately for Bass and her campaign, the gift was not reported on her annual financial disclosure statements until 2019.

Bass’ relationship with USC goes back decades when she worked there as a physician’s assistant and received help to start her non-profit organization, the Community Coalition.  USC is also the largest employer in her Congressional District.

In just a few years, the two candidates went from smiles to accusations.  “At USC’s commencement ceremony in 2019, Rep. Karen Bass and Rick Caruso sat side by side onstage, laughing and flashing the two-finger salute known to USC’s legion of proud fans.”

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