There are a thousand ways to think about Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas and the crimes he’s accused of, but the one I keep coming back to is the saddest: He was trying to help his child.
I don’t want to sound like I’m making apologies or understating the gravity of the allegations. Bribery is bribery. Ridley-Thomas pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges that he steered millions of dollars in public contracts to USC in return for a full-ride scholarship and a paid professorship for his son. If he really did that, it’s every bit as illegal and immoral as if he’d put money in his own pocket.
But I can’t help it, there’s something that tugs at me anyway.
I had a similar reaction when I first read about the 2019 college admissions scandal (also centered at USC). On the one hand it was corruption, plain and simple — parents paying off officials and telling lies about their kids to subvert the admissions process.
But a piece of me felt a lurch of pity for those privileged, entitled parents who deluded themselves into thinking they were helping their kids. I have no reason to doubt Lori Loughlin (prosecutors said she passed her daughters off as rowers and paid $500,000 to get them admitted to USC) when she told the court: “I thought I was acting out of love for my children.”
And I felt that pang again when I read about former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos of New York; I knew him many years ago when he was an up-and-coming legislator. Skelos, one of the state’s most powerful officials, ended up serving a four-year sentence for bribery and extortion — crimes he undertook on behalf of his son, Adam, who he said struggled with learning issues and substance abuse, and couldn’t hold a job. Skelos strong-armed businesspeople who needed state contracts and legislation into paying Adam more than $300,000 in no-show and barely-show jobs.
These stories have an element of tragedy and universality to them because, on some level, we can all imagine doing crazy, irresponsible things for our children in desperate situations.
And sometimes, bad behavior on behalf of one’s kids — even illegal behavior — is forgivable. I recently read about a man named Henry Zeidman who was sent to prison in 1911 for stealing $30 of merchandise from his employer, a jeweler.
At Zeidman’s sentencing, his wife said: “My God, Your Honor, he stole for me. I was sick. The baby was sick. We had no home and were walking the streets. His business failed and we lost all. Henry came to this horrid city to get work and he sent me almost all his salary. Then the little one was taken sick and he stole. Oh, please, please, Your Honor, let him go; do not send him away from me.”
The judge responded, according to the New York Times, that “if a man cannot rear children decently, he has no right to have them.” With that callous remark, he trundled Zeidman away. Even 110 years later, I was livid.
But it’s one thing to steal $30 to feed a hungry child with scarlet fever; it’s another to wangle a professorship for Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, then 30 years old, to put him back on his feet after a rough patch. Sebastian had fallen into debt and was in danger of losing his job as a state assemblyman (a job he also presumably got with help from his father) due to allegations of sexual harassment.
Not every act committed on behalf of a child gets a moral free pass. It is not OK to misuse your official position like Skelos or to lie and buy your kid’s way into college like the parents in the college admissions scandal.
Dan Ariely, a behavioral psychologist at Duke University, points to a phenomenon called “altruistic cheating.” Humans, he says, justify cheating more easily to themselves if they’re doing it on behalf of someone else. What’s more, adds his colleague, social psychologist Dar Peleg, not only do people who cheat for others feel less guilt and remorse, they also cheat more often than they otherwise would.
There are biological explanations, too, for why parents will do all they can to help their kids. The theory of “kin selection” suggests that there are genetic advantages. To oversimplify: Anything a parent does that helps his or her child survive and reproduce benefits their shared genes.
Whether for genetics, psychology or simply love, parents have acted in immoral ways on behalf of their children throughout history. Livia, the wife of Augustus Caesar, may have turned to murder in her machinations to make her son, Tiberius, emperor. Elfrida, mother of Ethelred the Unready, supposedly killed her son’s stepbrother to clear a path to the English throne.
Not to mention the unnamed woman who attracted so much attention on Reddit a few years ago after she was caught helping her first-grader cheat on his take-home reading tests.
Some people believe that when parents cheat for their children, they’re really acting on behalf of themselves, often to raise their own status or prestige.
Maybe so. But here’s something that is clearly true: When you cheat for your children, you risk harming not only yourself but them as well.
Adam Skelos went to prison along with his father. Felicity Huffman, as she pleaded guilty in the admissions scandal, acknowledged: “I am ashamed of the pain I caused my daughter.”
And I’ll bet Mark Ridley-Thomas — if he turns out to be guilty as charged — may find that he too has hurt people other than himself, including those he most intended to help.