Mark Ridley-Thomas found guilty in corruption case
Mark Ridley-Thomas, one of Los Angeles County’s most prominent politicians, was found guilty Thursday over federal corruption allegations related to special benefits his son received at USC.
The verdict, reached by the jury on day five of its trial, marks a devastating fall for a man who has been a leader in LA politics for more than 30 years and a vocal advocate of civil rights and racial justice.
Ridley-Thomas, 68, now faces the possibility of years in federal prison and permanent loss of his LA City Council seat, from which he was suspended for the past 17 months.
Of the 19 counts against Ridley-Thomas, the jury found him guilty of seven counts: conspiracy, bribery, mail fraud with honest services and four counts of wire fraud with honest services.
The split, according to the jury foreman, resulted from differing views of the jury on the wrongful conduct in the case. There was disagreement over whether Ridley-Thomas’ son’s admission to USC, his scholarship, or his job were part of the alleged scheme. Ultimately, the foreman said, USC’s routing of the money — and Ridley-Thomas’ emails about the transaction — convinced the jury to convict.
“Many of the jurors believed there was no connection [Ridley-Thomas] and the USC stuff, and it came back to the $100,000 donation,” said Kirsi Kilpelainen, 36, who served as jury foreman.
The verdict is the most prominent in a string of victories for a team of corruption prosecutors at the US Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles. This team secured guilty pleas from two other LA City Council members and won the conviction of US Rep. Jeff Fortenberry in a count of illegal campaign contributions. It has also uncovered a corruption scheme involving the LA Department of Water and Energy and jailed a wealthy and connected Beverly Hills developer on bribery charges in a case involving leases with the government of LA County went.
Thursday’s ruling also validates the work of FBI Special Agent Brian Adkins, a respected specialist in public corruption, whose investigative moves have been repeatedly attacked by Ridley-Thomas’ defense attorneys when they attempt to cast doubt on the jury’s minds about the case before them to sow.
To convict Ridley-Thomas, prosecutors and the FBI pored over reams of emails, phone records and internal USC documents to piece together a timeline of the legislature’s dealings with Marilyn Flynn, the former dean of USC’s social work program.
Prosecutors outlined a conspiracy that began in May 2017 when Ridley-Thomas’ son Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, then a member of the State Assembly, began expressing interest in participating in USC’s graduate social work program.
In emails, Flynn expressed her eagerness to enroll Sebastian, described her plan to give him free tuition, and said she “did the same for Karen Bass — full scholarship to our funds.”
Prosecutors found the email about Bass, now LA Mayor, to be a brazen example of Flynn’s agenda — using grants as a means of winning government contracts.
“It’s not rocket science what Marilyn Flynn is looking for here,” Assistant US Atty. Lindsey Greer Dotson addressed the jury in her closing arguments last week. Bass was never charged, but as a member of Congress representing LA at the time, she had sponsored legislation that, if passed, would have expanded federal funding to social work schools.
To pinpoint Ridley-Thomas’ role in the conspiracy, prosecutors weaved together months of emails, phone calls and other correspondence between Flynn and Ridley-Thomas, who was then a member of the LA County Board of Supervisors. Prosecutors pointed to a meeting in June 2017 where the two discussed USC’s demands for action on key issues before the board. Flynn later recalled the discussion of the meeting in a confidential letter she personally delivered to the politician’s office.
For prosecutors, the letter was the blueprint for the conspiracy — proof that Sebastian’s path at USC was being discussed in the same breath as Flynn’s wish-list for government business.
A plan marked by “winks and nods” between Flynn and Ridley-Thomas turned into “shoves and shoves,” prosecutors said, in December 2017. This month, state Capitol attorneys launched a sexual harassment investigation into Sebastian Ridley-Thomas.
With the scandal threatening to taint Ridley-Thomas’ political machine, prosecutors argued that he was leaning on Flynn and she, in turn, acted quickly to provide Sebastian with exceptional benefits. These included admission and a full scholarship before he even completed his application; a part-time professorship; and later USC’s onward transfer of $100,000 to a non-profit organization led by the younger Ridley-Thomas.
During the course of the alleged conspiracy, Mark Ridley-Thomas voted before the board of directors on three agenda items directly related to USC’s social work program that were coveted by Flynn. Her verbal responses to those polls were among the most damning evidence against Ridley-Thomas.
“MRT is really trying to deliver here,” said Flynn in an email to another USC colleague on a matter later voted on by Ridley-Thomas. “I met with the manager recently,” Flynn told a colleague ahead of another vote, adding, “This is exactly what I was hoping for.”
Defense attorneys sought to refute the prosecution’s lengthy and detailed account of the case, emphasizing that Sebastian Ridley-Thomas resigned from the congregation for legitimate health reasons. The defense’s first witness was Sebastian’s doctor, who vouched for his illnesses and said he recommended his patient find another career.
Sebastian, they said, also qualified himself to attend USC and receive a scholarship. Defense attorneys pointed out that before he was 30, he had been elected to the state assembly three times and sponsored dozens of Sacramento bills — making him a shoo-in for admissions and a marquee student in USC’s graduate program.
Next, the defense team attempted to determine that Ridley-Thomas did not need to, and should not, have been bribed. They stressed lawmakers’ long-standing and public support for the key votes in the case — on a re-entry center for recently released prisoners; a trial training program; and a secluded psychiatric hospital – all in line with the politician’s main political goals.
The defense wanted the jury to consider why anyone, let alone a dean of social work, thought they had to offer bribes to carry out these actions.
Ridley-Thomas did not testify in his defense, and throughout the trial he silently watched witness testimony and occasionally gestured to the dozens of supporters who filled the courtroom each day. As jury deliberations continued this week, he greeted and hugged friends and former employees in the courtrooms and cafeteria at the US Courthouse on 1st Street.
Flynn, who was ousted as dean of USC’s social work program in 2018, pleaded guilty to one count of bribery in September. She did not testify at the Ridley-Thomas trial and is awaiting sentencing.
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2023-03-30/ridley-thomas-verdict-corruption-case Mark Ridley-Thomas found guilty in corruption case