Defense rests in suspended L.A. City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas' federal corruption trial
Lawyers will give closing arguments Thursday morning after the judge rejected two proposed rebuttal witnesses. Jurors heard from several brief defense witnesses.
Suspended Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas’ former chief of staff testified that a letter an FBI agent described as a memorialization of an illegal conspiracy is actually a “very typical” example of the longtime policymaker’s approach to understanding the diversity of governing bodies.
Karly Katona, who began working for Ridley-Thomas in 2008 when he was on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, called the letter from now-retired USC School of Social Services Dean Marilyn Flynn “very, very classic.”
“What we would say is ‘Classic MRT,’” Katona testified Tuesday as a defense witness in Ridley-Thomas’ federal corruption trial.
Katona was referring to a section of the 2017 letter that discusses the composition of a committee researching homelessness. Created through the United Way-funded Home for Good, the committee had no Black or Hispanic men and only one Black female and one Hispanic female, but 21 Caucasian males.
It was “not unusual” to receive confidential letters for Ridley-Thomas, Katona said, and the supervisor would find the information about the committee’s lack of diversity “very problematic.”
Katona’s testimony supports Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers’ argument that the letter was sealed and hand delivered not to mask any criminal intent but to protect sensitive information about the committee’s composition, including a line about “a committee of white academics and consultants who will study a problem that disproportionately affects African Americans in Los Angeles.”
The letter continued, “It is a typical pattern that can create anger and reduce legitimacy or buy in to findings.”
The letter also describes Ridley-Thomas’ plan to support a partnership between Flynn’s School of Social Services and the Los Angeles County Probation Department and the Department of Mental Health, as well as Flynn’s plans regarding Ridley-Thomas’ son Sebastian’s enrollment and job at USC.
FBI Special Agent Brian Adkins testified that the letter “memorializes” a corrupt arrangement between Flynn and Ridley-Thomas that amounts to a bribery scheme involving public money.
Ridley-Thomas’ Morrison Foerster LLP defense team says the longtime political powerhouse is the victim of a sloppy investigation and a rush to judgment. Attorney Galia Amram emphasized that point with Katona by asking her if the FBI spoke with her about the letter and how Ridley-Thomas operated his office. Katona answered no.
The letter came up again in testimony from Brenda Wiewel, the USC employee who delivered it to Ridley-Thomas’ office at Flynn’s request. She was the first witness to testify in trial: Prosecutors used her testimony to get the letter into evidence, then displayed the letter while questioning other witnesses throughout the trial. She returned to the witness stand Tuesday as a defense witness, with attorney Daralyn Durie questioning her about the Home for Good committee’s composition and the letter’s calling out of the lack of diversity.
Wiewel confirmed she wrote the line about “a committee of white academics and consultants who will study a problem that disproportionately affects African Americans in Los Angeles.” Durie implied in a previous exam that Flynn and Ridley-Thomas were handling the letter with special care not because of any criminal intent, but because of the embarrassing reference to the committee’s diversity numbers and the accompanying criticism.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Rybarczyk asked Wiewel only one question in cross-examination: “Dean Flynn never told you why you needed to hand deliver this letter, is that correct?”
“Correct,” Wiewel answered.
Doctor, mother detail Sebastian Ridley-Thomas’ poor health
Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers rested their case Wednesday afternoon after he chose not to testify. Their case began Tuesday morning with testimony from Sebastian Ridley-Thomas’ physician, George Mallouck.
Durie said prosecutors have put Sebastian’s “health directly at issue in this case” by saying he resigned from the State Assembly not for health reasons as he publicly stated, but because of a statehouse investigation into two sexual harassment complaints against him.
No one denies the existence of the investigation or the complaints, but Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers have tried to show in trial that Sebastian’s health problems were persistent and severe.
Durie went over Sebastian’s medical records with Mallouck in detail for the jury, which included information about a 2016 referral to a mental health counselor, a colonoscopy and an emergency gallstone surgery in Sacramento. Mallouck said he referred Sebastian to a surgeon in October 2017 because “he was not healing,” then prescribed him pain medication as he tried to avoid surgery.
Mallouck’s testimony was complemented by testimony from Avis Ridley-Thomas, Sebastian’s mother and Ridley-Thomas’ high school sweetheart and wife of nearly 44 years.
She took the stand Wednesday as the final defense witness, testifying about her realization that Sebastian “was burning the candle at both ends” as a state assemblyman, and it was harming his health. She said she supported her son’s candidacy wholeheartedly — Sebastian has a twin brother named Sinclair — and added, “Sebastian is brilliant.” She described how she learned he was in the emergency room in Sacramento from his chief of staff, so she rushed up there to be at his bedside.
“It was clear he needed to do something else with his life to ensure that his health was good,” she said.
She said she saw firsthand how Sebastian’s resignation from the state Assembly and enrollment at USC improved his health. He was living at his parents’ home and the courses were online, so she saw first hand how he “really seemed to relax” and enjoy learning.
“It really seemed to rejuvenate him,” she said. Prosecutors did not cross-examine her.
Defense witnesses include county, USC employees
Other defense witnesses focused on the routine nature of the three agenda items prosecutors say were part of Ridley-Thomas’ and Flynn’s conspiracy.
The first two were in summer 2017 and concerned a new community reentry center near the USC campus and the so-called Probation University partnership between USC and Los Angeles County. The third was an amendment in 2018 to the county’s TeleHealth counseling contract that lucratively looped in Flynn’s USC School of Social Services.
Former Los Angeles County CEO Sachi Hamai answered questions about the lack of controversy surrounding the probation item, the history of the TeleHealth contract and the presence of UCLA in an unrelated agenda item in 2014.
Ridley-Thomas’ former senior health deputy Michael Hochman also testified, confirming that he “did ultimately recommend” that Ridley-Thomas support the amendment to the TeleHealth contract.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Morse asked him in cross-examination if he would have considered the fact that TeleHealth quality was criticized by John Sherin, the former head of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.
Hochman answered yes, he would have taken Sherin’s opinion into account.
Judge rejects prosecution’s two rebuttal witnesses
After the jury left on Wednesday, Morse cited Hochman’s testimony when arguing to Judge Dale Fischer that Sherin should be called as a rebuttal witness. Prosecutors had originally planned to call him in their case in chief, but they never did.
Morse said the defense “opened the door” for Sherin in rebuttal by presenting to jurors that the TeleHealth program was operating well. He said that means prosecutors should be able to call Sherin as a witness to ask him about his recorded statements to FBI Agent Brian Adkins that the TeleHealth program was “a complete failure” and “a shit show” and “did not have a reputation for providing good care.”
Sherin’s lawyer, Melissa Weinberger, told the judge she doesn’t believe Sherin’s testimony would “fall in line” with the statements the government is making because Sherin “believed in TeleHealth more generally.”
Morse said Sherin was “essentially a carrot to tangle in front of Marilyn Flynn” by Ridley-Thomas, who emailed Flynn “he’s ready to go” after he’d secured Sherin’s support.
But the judge wouldn’t allow Sherin as a rebuttal witness, saying prosecutors should have known the quality of TeleHealth would be an issue and called Sherin as a witness in their case in chief.
“It’s not opening the door. It’s what you should have known and presented in your case,” Judge Fischer said.
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Janice Hahn and Sheila Kuehl testify
Sherin wasn’t the only rejected rebuttal witness: Prosecutors also won’t be calling Janice Hahn, chairwoman of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsey Greer Dotson said they needed to ask Hahn about hypothetical situations that could change her support for the board action items, such as asking what she’d still voted yes if she’d known about Ridley-Thomas and Flynn’s communications and Sebastian’s USC job and scholarship.
Dotson tried asking Hahn about it in cross-examination, but Judge Fischer agreed with Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers that it was “outside the scope.”
If Hahn had been asked, “my understanding is her answer would have been no, and there would have been a referral to county counsel,” Dotson said. Dotson called Hahn and Kuehl’s testimony an attempt by Ridley-Thomas’ attorneys to paint a “nothing to see here” picture regarding the three action items.
But Fischer basically said that if it wasn’t relevant in cross, it’s not relevant in rebuttal. So, there will be no rebuttal witnesses.
Hahn testified briefly Wednesday, only answering questions about whether Ridley-Thomas had pressured her to support the items — she said no — and explaining why she supported them. Former Supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s testimony was about as brief, with essentially the same answers to the same questions: Ridley-Thomas didn’t pressure her, and she supported the items on her own. The most interesting part of their testimony was the side comments and uproarious laugher from the receptive gallery. Jurors saw a clip of Hahn speaking at a 2017 board meeting, and Hahn quipped, “well I was a lot younger and I don’t know about that hair” and a lot of people for some reason thought it was hilarious.
‘It’s ultimately transparent’
Wednesday’s other witnesses included USC employees Carmen Fierson and David Galaviz, former USC employee James Wind, Ridley-Thomas’ former Senior Deputy for Health Yolanda Vera (she now works for Supervisor Holly Mitchell), Ridley-Thomas’ former Senior Deputy for Human Resources and Child Welfare Emily Williams. Zaneta Smith, the woman Sebastian hired to lead his initiative, also testified briefly, as did USC professor emeritus Jacquelyn McCroskey. Generally speaking, the direct-exams focused on ordinary nature of actions prosecutors say are conspiratorial, as well as Ridley-Thomas’ history of support for the policy issues, while the cross-exams focused on the witness’ lack of direct knowledge about key prosecution evidence, such as discussions between Flynn and Ridley-Thomas.
The most substantive witness probably was Ann Ravel, the former chair of the California Fair Political Practices Commission and a former appointee to the Federal Election Commission.
She testified that Ridley-Thomas’ $100,000 donation to USC and USC’s subsequent $100,000 donation to United Way for Sebastian's initiative were legal.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Rybarczyk’s cross-examination focused on what she didn’t include in her report, including an email in which Flynn falsely tells Ridley-Thomas his gift “will be deposited into the Dean’s Discretionary Fund.” Rybarczyk questioned her about Ridley-Thomas possibly trying to avoid leaving a paper trail for reporters or “transparency folks, people who are interested in transparency.”
Asked whether the $100,000 transaction was transparent, Ravel testified, “It’s ultimately transparent because somebody came to know about it,” which actually caused someone in the gallery to burst out in what sounded like a cough/stifled gasp of disbelief.
Miscellaneous trial notes
Brief witness: Probably the most unexplainable defense witness Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers put on was Paul Vandeventer, who testified about calling Ridley-Thomas to tell him he wouldn’t be hiring Sebastian to work at the social welfare organization he co-founded, Community Partners. The conversation occurred while Vandeventer was on a train to Portland, Oregon, and he testified Wednesday it was “pretty consequential.” He said he knew he was delivering “bad news” to Ridley-Thomas but focused on telling him the facts: He knew it was legal to hire Sebastian, but he would not be doing so and there’d been “pushback within my office” about the optics of the hiring. There was no cross-examination. Again, I have no idea what was defensive about that defense witness, but I guess that’s what closing arguments are for.
UPDATE: Los Angeles Times reporter Matt Hamilton, who’s been following this saga from the beginning and has broken a lot of news regarding it, offers this regarding Vandeventer’s testimony:
Acquittal motion: Ridley-Thomas’ have filed a written motion for a judgment of acquittal under Rule 29 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.
You can read the full document here.
Use PACER? Install RECAP: There are a few other new filings I will try to address later, but they may become obsolete. Anyone reading this who accesses documents through the PACER system: Please install the RECAP browser extension that uploads PACER documents. People who don’t have the extension installed are paying for PACER documents and the documents aren’t being uploaded into the free CourtListener file. We as a society need do better. The United States v. Mark Ridley-Thomas file would have almost every document available if everyone had the extension installed. Check it out here.
Closing time: Closing arguments will probably be underway by 9 a.m. I’ll be tweeting when I can, and I’ll write more articles soon. Thank you for reading!
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Legal Affairs and Trials with Meghann Cuniff is a reader-supported publication. To further support my work, become a paid subscriber.