USC scandals star in LA’s mayoral race, with Bass and Caruso pointing fingers

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At the USC’s inaugural ceremony in 2019, Rep. Karen Bass and Rick Caruso across campus in crimson dresses, beaming at the thousands of prospective graduates and their families.

Both private university alums, the congresswoman and the developer sat side by side on the podium, smiling and waving the two-fingered salute familiar to the legion of proud USC fans.

“We’re raising our two fingers when and where we see another Trojan,” Bass told the audience after receiving an honorary doctorate as Caruso, chairman of the university’s board of trustees, looked on. “USC Trojans will fight on until we change the world.”

US Rep. Karen Bass delivers the 2019 commencement address at USC.

(Gus Ruelas)

Now, less than two months until Election Day, Bass and Caruso are fighting a bitter and personal battle to become LA’s next mayor, attacking each other’s character and ethics, especially when it comes to their alma mater.

Caruso has labeled his opponent “corrupt” for accepting a $95,000 scholarship from USC before pushing favorable legislation for college. Bass has responded by accusing the businessman, a longtime trustee, of not being transparent about the findings of an internal investigation into a gynecologist accused of sexually abusing female students.

Meanwhile, USC has become a punching bag, a bat, and a common thread in an increasingly bitter mayoral race.

The university’s pivotal role in the campaign season is a testament to the magnitude of its influence on civilian life and how deeply entrenched it is in Southern California’s power structure.

“We’ve had mayoral candidates and we’ve had mayors who have had close ties to USC before,” said Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro, chair of USC’s political science and international relations division.

But, she continued, the fact that “both campaigns are trying to mislead the other by touting their close relationships with USC as an association with scandal” is one of the more surprising aspects of the race.

Rick Caruso, left, with Dr.  Carol L. Folt at her 2019 inauguration as USC president.

Rick Caruso, left, with Dr. Carol L. Folt at her 2019 inauguration as USC president.

(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

“It’s unfortunate that this is the backdrop for this political back and forth,” said Gloria Molina, who was on the LA County Board of Supervisors. “But in the deepest issues of political corruption, they were right in the middle,” she said of USC.

For decades, Molina has represented the district that includes the USC’s health sciences campus and Boyle Heights hospitals. She recalled how the late USC president, Steven Sample, and his staff lobbied her office for control of the LA County hospital and other land use issues in her district.

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“They have a political arm that is very effective. They want to control the land around their facilities,” she said. “When they dangle these favors from elected officials, it’s no different from developers providing funds.”

Molina pointed to her former colleague on the Board of Trustees, Mark Ridley-Thomas, who is on trial this fall for what federal prosecutors say was a consideration for Marilyn Flynn, a former dean of USC’s social work program.

Flynn is also charged with bribery and fraud in connection with the alleged deal.

Mark Ridley-Thomas, then LA County Supervisor, at a 2020 press conference in Los Angeles.

Mark Ridley-Thomas, then LA County Supervisor, at a 2020 press conference in Los Angeles.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Prosecutors allege Flynn helped provide a scholarship and a job at USC for Ridley-Thomas’ son in exchange for his father securing provincial college contracts.

Bass’ scholarship to get a master’s degree in social work, while a member of Congress also came courtesy of Flynn.

The Times reported this week that federal prosecutors consider Bass’s grant conditions “critical” to the Ridley-Thomas case — specifically an email from Flynn describing “the same” kind of scholarship in return for funding with Bass.

After commencing her tuition-free studies in 2012, Bass enacted advanced legislation that would have allowed USC and other private universities to gain more federal funding.

Federal prosecutors have not indicated that Bass is under criminal investigation.

“She got a free scholarship because she was a powerful congressman,” Caruso said at a news conference Thursday. “This is corruption. This is unfair, plain and simple.”

Caruso linked the scholarship to systemic graft plaguing City Hall and urged his opponent to release her communications with Flynn.

Meanwhile, Bass and her allies have been trying to center the mall developer’s role as chairman of USC’s board of trustees.

Caruso, who has repeatedly proclaimed his ties to USC as positive on the campaign trail, took over as chairman of the board after revelations of wrongdoing by gynecologist George Tyndall.

Caruso helped USC negotiate $1.1 billion in legal settlements with Tyndall’s alleged victims and overhauled the university’s leadership and governance structure. But in recent years, he has reneged on publishing an internal report on Tyndall, saying USC attorneys only gave oral briefings to trustees.

Minutes after The Times published its report on Bass last Wednesday, its campaign ran a 30-second ad criticizing Caruso for “covering up” wrongdoing and robbing transparency from Tyndall’s victims.

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“The real USC scandal we need to talk about is how he failed to protect these young women,” Bass said at a news conference Thursday.

Bass has been silent for years about USC’s many scandals, receiving her honorary degree from the university following the Tyndall revelations.

The Times asked her campaign if she had previously spoken out or taken action on sexual misconduct at USC. Her spokesperson did not answer the questions.

Caruso called the ad “a desperate and dishonest attempt to distract” from her involvement in the federal corruption case.

It was a remarkably biting tone from both candidates after a primary season in which they largely avoided outright attacks on each other. Since Bass beat Caruso by 7 percentage points in the June primary, she has increased her lead to 43%-31%, according to polls this summer.

But nearly a quarter of registered voters remain undecided – a pole that could change the race in recent weeks.

Mayor Eric Garcetti taught at USC long before moving to Getty House, and Antonio Villaraigosa worked at the university after his time as mayor.

But this year’s candidates have a connection to USC that is more varied and deeper than in the recent past.

Caruso was the first in his family to earn a college degree when he graduated from USC, and his kids went along too. He has donated millions of dollars to the school, where the Catholic Center and the ENT department bear his family’s name.

Bass graduated from USC’s Physician Assistant and later worked for the university. USC helped incubate the nonprofit she founded, Community Coalition, and has maintained close ties with USC professors, particularly in the social work program.

During Bass’s time in Congress, USC leaders have visited her annually on lobbying trips, and she has often lectured on campus.

“Elected officials should pay attention to the USC. You can’t ignore it. You can’t get around it, even if it’s not in your district,” said Hancock Alfaro, USC professor of political science and international relations.

It is one of the largest private employers in the region, and its far-reaching tentacles, compounded by its extensive and loyal network of alumni, extend to sports, entertainment, tourism, hospitality and business.

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The school has long been influential, but has actively sought a more prominent role in the city over the past 15 to 20 years, Hancock Alfaro said.

Darry Sragow, a longtime political strategist, attorney and USC adjunct professor, recalled a college guest lecture next to a former state senator who works at a USC think tank.

They met at an institution named after former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and stood outside the old office of former Secretary of State Pro Tem and current city councilor Kevin de León, a former colleague at the center — a sign of USC’s efforts to forge ties to political parties. leaders.

“The fact that the school is being dragged into a mayoral race between two finalists, both of whom have a very important relationship with the school, is just an inevitable consequence of all these factors that came into play,” Sragow said.

The rise of USC and other universities in civic life has coincided with their pursuit of global prestige, as major corporations leave LA or merge into conglomerates based elsewhere.

Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Cal State LA Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, noted that “the decline of the kind of dominant business sector in the downtown area sets a sort of tone for the city.”

Of the universities, UCLA and USC both occupy huge spaces in civic life, but USC’s is larger, he said, due to its growing physical footprint and healthcare enterprise stretching from Bakersfield to Newport Beach.

Last year, two members of the LA City Council battled during the decade-long realignment process over who would represent the USC’s main campus.

At the time, USC officials didn’t say which district they preferred — just that the campus should not be divided.

That clash over reclassification, as well as the campaign barbs, have put USC in an awkward position to talk about but largely unable to respond to.

As a non-profit organization, the university is prohibited by law from endorsing, supporting, or opposing candidates for political office. But it is undeniably a political actor, current and former elected officials say.

The school has also long been a venue for political debates between local and state-wide candidates, even hosting a mayoral primary debate this year. But it pulled further back from the race when senior administrators pulled out of hosting another debate between Caruso and Bass last month, partly over security concerns.

Caruso was instrumental in hiring USC president Carol Folt, who has made decidedly neutral statements about the mayoral race.

Earlier this year, Folt took an enthusiastic but cautious tone. “We look forward to working with our next mayor and all of our elected officials in the region,” she said.