Mark Ridley-Thomas, one of Los Angeles County’s most prominent politicians, has been found guilty on Thursday of federal corruption charges related to the special benefits her son received at USC.
The verdict, reached by jurors on their fifth day of deliberations, marks a devastating fall for a man who for more than 30 years was an influential player in Los Angeles politics and an outspoken advocate for civil rights and racial justice.
Ridley-Thomas, 68, now faces years in federal prison and the permanent loss of his seat on the Los Angeles City Council, from which he has been suspended for the past 17 months.
Of the 19 counts against Ridley-Thomas, jurors found him guilty of seven: conspiracy, bribery, honest services mail fraud and four counts of honest services wire fraud.
The split, according to the foreman of the jury, stemmed from differences of opinion among 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 was part of the alleged scheme. Ultimately, the foreman said, the flow of money through USC — and emails from Ridley-Thomas about the transaction — persuaded the jurors to convict.
“A lot of jurors thought there was no connection between [Ridley-Thomas] and USC things, and that comes down to the $100,000 donation,” said Kirsi Kilpelainen, 36, who served as jury chair.
The verdict is the most high-profile in a string of victories for a team of public corruption prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles. This team secured guilty pleas from two other LA City Council members and won the conviction of US Representative Jeff Fortenberry in an illegal campaign contribution case. He also unraveled a bribery scheme involving the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and sent a wealthy, connected Beverly Hills developer to jail for bribery in a case involving leases with the LA County government. .
Thursday’s verdict also validates the work of FBI Special Agent Brian Adkins, a renowned expert in public corruption whose investigative steps have been repeatedly attacked by defense attorneys for Ridley-Thomas as they sought to sow doubt in the minds of the jurors about the case before them.
To convict Ridley-Thomas, prosecutors and the FBI pored through tons of emails, phone records and internal USC documents to piece together a timeline of the lawmaker’s relationship with Marilyn Flynn, the program’s former dean. of social work from USC.
Prosecutors described a conspiracy that began around May 2017, when Ridley-Thomas’ son, then-state Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, began expressing interest in participating in the social work program. USC graduates.
In emails, Flynn expressed her eagerness to enroll Sebastian, describing her intention to give him free tuition and saying she had done “the same for Karen Bass – a full scholarship for our funds.”
Prosecutors found the email about Bass, now the mayor of Los Angeles, a brazen example of Flynn’s agenda – using scholarships as a way to secure government contracts.
“It’s not rocket science what Marilyn Flynn is looking for here,” said assistant US Atty. Lindsey Greer Dotson told jurors during her closing argument last week. Bass was never charged, but as a congresswoman representing LA at the time, she had sponsored a bill that, if passed, would have expanded federal funding to schools of social work.
To show 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 June 2017 meeting in which the two men discussed USC’s demands for action on key issues before the board. Flynn then commemorated the discussion of the meeting in a confidential letter she had personally delivered to the politician’s office.
For prosecutors, the letter was the blueprint for the conspiracy — proof that Sebastian’s journey to USC was 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 “pushing and shoving” in December 2017, prosecutors said. That month, a sexual harassment investigation of Sebastian Ridley-Thomas was launched by state capitol attorneys.
As the scandal threatened to undermine Ridley-Thomas’ political machine, prosecutors argued that he leaned on Flynn and that she in turn moved quickly to provide Sebastian with extraordinary benefits. Among them were admission and a full scholarship even before completing his application; a part-time faculty position; and later funneling $100,000 through USC to a nonprofit led by young Ridley-Thomas.
Throughout the alleged conspiracy, Mark Ridley-Thomas voted on three agenda items before the Board of Supervisors that directly related to USC’s social work program and were coveted by Flynn. His verbal responses to those votes were some of the most damning evidence against Ridley-Thomas.
“MRT is really trying to deliver here,” said an email from Flynn to another USC colleague about a question Ridley-Thomas later voted on. “I met the supervisor recently,” Flynn told a colleague before another vote, adding, “That’s exactly what I had hoped would happen.”
Defense attorneys sought to undermine prosecutors’ elaborate and detailed plan of the case, pointing out that Sebastian Ridley-Thomas had resigned from the Assembly for legitimate health reasons. The first witness for the defense was Sebastian’s doctor, who vouched for his illnesses and said he recommended his patient find another career.
Sebastian, they said, also qualified in his own right to attend USC and receive a scholarship. Defense attorneys pointed out that he was elected to the state assembly three times before he turned 30 and sponsored dozens of bills in Sacramento, making him a shoo -in for admission and a student of standing in USC’s graduate program.
Then the defense team attempted to establish that there was no need or advantage to bribe Ridley-Thomas. They pointed to the lawmaker’s long-standing, public support for key votes in the case – on a rehabilitation center for those recently released from prison; a probationary training program; and a remote mental health clinic – all aligned with the politician’s main political goals.
The defense wanted jurors to consider why someone, let alone a dean of social work, thought he had to offer bribes to accomplish these measures.
Ridley-Thomas did not testify in his defense, and throughout the trial he quietly watched the testimony and occasionally waved at the dozens of supporters who filled the courtroom each day. As jury deliberations continued this week, he greeted and hugged friends and former staff in the halls and cafeteria of the US 1st Street Courthouse.
Flynn, who was ousted as dean of USC’s social work program in 2018, pleaded guilty in September to one count of bribery. She did not testify at the Ridley-Thomas trial and is awaiting sentencing.
Los Angeles Times