Closing: USC's 'VIP' treatment made scholarship for Mark Ridley-Thomas' son 'business as usual'
Prosecution rebuttal continues Friday morning in the federal corruption trial against the suspended Los Angeles city councilman, then jurors will begin deliberating.
Mark Ridley-Thomas’ lead lawyer argued Thursday that the University of Southern California has a century-old “VIP scholarship program” that makes the scholarship given to the politician’s son “business as usual.”
“Look, I think we’ve got to get a little bit real here about what was going on at USC,” Daralyn Durie told jurors in her two-hour closing argument, showing them a December 2017 email between USC employees that said, “Another VIP with full ride.” The email referred to a scholarship for Ridley-Thomas’ son Sebastian, who Durie said was in a long line of “VIP” recipients, including now-Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass.
“I am not asking any of you to like it, but it’s been going on for 100 years,” said Durie, a partner at Morrison Foerster LLP. Aside from Sebastian’s accomplishments as a state assemblyman, was his father’s political power also a factor in USC’s decision?
“Yeah, maybe. That happens,” Durie said, answering her own question. “You think Kobe Bryant’s kids want to go to USC and USC isn’t going to let them in?”
Still, Durie said Sebastian’s scholarship was in no way a gift to his father in exchange for votes. Not only was Sebastian qualified for both his USC student admission and his professorship, the elder Ridley-Thomas’ support of the three county action items at the center of his prosecution was a standard part of his policy agenda, Durie said.
But in rebuttal that will continue Friday morning, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Morse told the jury that Durie “misstated the law to you” by arguing Ridley-Thomas “didn’t sell his vote,” when the law or jury instructions don’t say anything about selling a vote.
Morse referenced Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsey Greer Dotson’s argument that detailed the elements of the bribery and fraud crimes against Ridley-Thomas: No one’s position needs to change for a bribe to take place. Ridley-Thomas is accused of monetizing his public position, Dotson said, and it doesn’t matter if he’d long held that position before he monetized it.
Jury hears extra instruction about FBI agent’s testimony
Durie focused heavily on what she argued was Ridley-Thomas’ inability to be bribed regarding his policies, at one point citing a press release he issued in 2016 commending the TeleHealth program. She compared his longstanding support for the program to her co-counsel Arturo Gonzalez’s love for the Los Angeles Lakers. Gonzalez could never be bribed into liking the Lakers, she said, just as Ridley-Thomas could never be bribed into supporting TeleHealth.
Durie said FBI Special Agent Brian Adkins didn’t consider Ridley-Thomas’ longtime public support for TeleHealth when concluding he’d supported an amendment involving USC’s School of Social Work only because Flynn secured Sebastian’s scholarship and job and funneled money for him.
The TeleHealth contract, approved by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Aug. 1, 2018, followed votes in summer 2017 for a partnership between USC and the Los Angeles County Probation Department for a reentry center near campus and a student training partnership. Prosecutors’ case also involves a $100,000 that Ridley-Thomas donated from his campaign account to USC that School of Social Work Dean Marilyn Flynn then sent to United Way to fund Sebastian’s policy initiative.
Durie referenced an extra instruction U.S. District Judge Dale Fischer read jurors that listed Adkins’ shifting testimony regarding his review of the estimated 400,000 documents in this case. First he said he’d reviewed them all, then he said he reviewed some and another case agent reviewed others. Fischer instructed the jury that they can consider Adkins’ statements when assessing his credibility and deciding whether to believe his testimony.
“That’s a serious instruction,” Durie said. “And that may seem like a very serious instruction for just not reading all the documents,” but this is a criminal case, and it’s important to do your homework.
She also referenced Adkins’ testimony that “I believe my timing may have been mixed up a bit” regarding Sebastian’s voluntary statehouse interview and an email exchange between Ridley-Thomas and a public relations specialist. It may seem small, but when the prosecution’s case is all about timing, timing is obviously crucial, she said.
“He made up his mind that this was a crime before he gathered all the evidence,” Durie said.
‘It’s not rocket science what Marilyn Flynn’s looking for here’
Dotson argued the evidence is about more than timing — it’s about intent that can be discerned through a paper trail littered with winks and nods.
“People operate with winks and nods. Smart people operate with winks and nods,” Dotson said. She beginning her argument with a line from her March 8 opening statement: “Power, privilege and lies.”
“You now know what this case is about,” Dotson said, and it began in 2017 with “two people in crisis.”
Sebastian was facing a sexual harassment investigation in the State Assembly, and “a scandal for the Ridley-Thomas family was just not acceptable” so Ridley-Thomas needed to find a way for his son to resign from the Assembly but quickly reemerge in another area of public life.
At the same time, Flynn was facing a budget deficit that threatened her legacy, “and her job and six-figure salary.” And as chairman of the “five kings and queens” that is the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Dotson said Ridley-Thomas had access to a $30 billion budget, and he used it as leverage to ask Flynn for personal favors.
“Once you put your hand out as a public official and ask for something, that’s when the crime is consummated,” Dotson said, telling jurors throughout her argument: “Public officials don’t get to monetize their public service.”
She said policy makers can support any agenda item they want, including for world peace, but what they cannot do — what’s illegal — is “to put that hand out and make anyone think that they have to pay for play.”
“You don’t get to monetize a position simply because the position you’re monetizing might have helped people in the community,”
Ridley-Thomas, 68, is charged with 19 felonies: Conspiracy, bribery, two counts of honest services mail fraud and 15 counts of honest services wire fraud. The fraud charges relate to actions he took while in his official capacity as an elected Los Angeles County supervisor, include emails and letters and actions related to the $100,000 donation.
Dotson went through a timeline of Ridley-Thomas and Flynn’s actions and communications while displaying some of their email exchanges, including the June 2017, email that caused an uproar in last year’s Los Angeles mayoral race when first reported by the Los Angeles Times: “I did the same for Karen Bass — full scholarship for our funds.”
“It’s not rocket science what Marilyn Flynn’s looking for here,” Dotson said Thursday.
Arguing after Dotson, Durie said the “for” was a typo on Flynn’s part. The dean actually meant “from” our funds, Durie said, displaying the email with “for” crossed out in red and “from” written below it. If prosecutors are to be believed regarding Ridley-Thomas the email as written means “Karen Bass, the current mayor of Los Angeles, would be a criminal,” Durie said, but Adkins testified that she wasn’t charged with a crime based on the email.
That led to her discussion about USC’s VIP scholarship program, which included her displaying another email from Oct. 2, 2011, in which Flynn said, “I need to come up with funds to pay for Karen Bass’s scholarship.”
‘He knows how to get her to jump’
Dotson highlighted early on how Jack Knott, the now-former dean of USC’s School of Public Policy, initially told Sebastian “it’s not feasible” to get his dual enrollment with the School of Social Work started by early January, and Sebastian forward the email to his father. The elder Ridley-Thomas turned to Flynn, Dotson said, “because Marilyn Flynn will jump for him, and he knows how to get her to jump.”
Ridley-Thomas’ initial contact with Flynn asked for a meeting and implied he had county business to discuss, Dotson said, saying Ridley-Thomas was “sending up a smoke signal, and Marilyn Flynn is just inhaling it.”
Dotson also highlighted Ridley-Thomas’ consistent use of the BCC (blind carbon copy) to loop Sebastian in on his correspondence with Flynn, saying it was him telling his son, “I’m dealing for Marilyn Flynn. She better keep dealing for you.” She also said Ridley-Thomas could have donated $100,000 to United Way directly for Sebastian’s son’s policy initiative, but he routed it through Flynn because he knew a nepotistic donation would look bad.
“If I’m going to drive from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica, I’m not going to drive through Bakersfield,” Dotson said, unless she’s trying to avoid being tracked.
Dotson highlighted Ridley-Thomas’ May 3, 2018, email to Flynn that asked her to get the money to United Way so that Sebastian’s policy director can be hired by the 15th, which sparked a flurry of activity for Flynn the next day.
“She’s moving money for Mark Ridley-Thomas, lying to USC, just to try to get a payment out that she wants,” Dotson said. Flynn telling USC employee Adriana Gonzalez, “If this check doesn’t get cut, I am going to get in trouble.” She also referenced an email Flynn sent Ridley-Thomas on May 8, 2018, after the payment was complete that said, “This one was easy. Sort of.”
Dotson said it’s “not a coincidence” that after the payment went through, Ridley-Thomas initiated the TeleHealth contract amendment that looped in Flynn’s school. Flynn was rolling out not one or two but “it is 20-some red carpets for this man,” Dotson said, referring to Sebastian. “Why. Why was he so important?”
‘They left out some pretty important stuff’
Durie’s argument to the jury that USC has long had a VIP scholarship program acknowledged that Ridley-Thomas being Sebastian’s father may have played a role in his admission. But she also stressed that Sebastian was recognizable in his own rite, and she said prosecutors are focusing on optics when optics are not a crime.
She began by telling jurors that if someone heard random portions of testimony, “You might have thought this was a lawsuit about Dean Marilyn Flynn” or a sexual harassment lawsuit about Sebastian.
In addition to arguing Flynn’s mean “from” instead of “for,” she also argued the confidential letter that Flynn ordered be hand delivered to Ridley-Thomas, which prosecutors say memorializes an illegal quid pro quo, was confidential because of sensitive references to the lack of racial diversity in a committee studying homelessness.
“I’m a white girl who grew up in Canada, but I’ve lived in L.A. long enough” to understand that race is a really “tough” issue, Durie said. She displayed the letter and referenced the information about the committee’s composition, which followed a paragraph in which Flynn begins, “I look forward to working with Sebastian…”
Calling Flynn “an interesting character in this drama,” Durie acknowledged the dean repeatedly violated USC policy but said Ridley-Thomas didn’t know what she was doing.
“She wasn’t so good with money,” Durie said. And, “the thing is, USC cares a lot about the money. It’s a private school.”
Durie also questioned the motives of the USC employees who led to the federal criminal referral and said they tipped the Los Angeles Times to the investigation. She ended by quoting Dotson’s opening statement, “This case is about power, privilege and lies,” displaying the phrase on the courtroom TV screens as she explained that the line actually describes prosecutors. They have power, Durie said, and with that comes privilege. She won’t say prosecutors lied, but she will say “I think they left out some pretty important stuff.”
Speaking of Marilyn Flynn: Prosecutors have repeatedly asked Judge Fischer to let them tell the jury she was charged with a crime (though not that she pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing). The judge has rejected each request. The most recent occurred after Durie’s closing argument on Thursday. The best prosecutors can do regarding punitive measures against Flynn is Dotson reminding jurors in her closing that Flynn was “ousted” from USC, because that fact was mentioned in testimony. But jurors will go into the deliberation room not knowing Flynn was charged with a crime.
Friday morning: Attorneys are back before Judge Fischer at 7:45 a.m. The jury is due at 8 a.m. I don’t know how much more remains in AUSA Morse’s rebuttal, but the jury could be deliberating by 9 a.m. Follow me on Twitter for updates from the courthouse, and look for more articles soon, including a breakdown of Ridley-Thomas’ 19 charges.
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