Jury hears prosecutor's final account of Mark Ridley-Thomas' evolving USC bribery scheme
From a 'wink and nod' to a 'push and shove,' the longtime Los Angeles politician's communications with USC School of Social Work Dean Marilyn Flynn evolved in 2017.
Jurors in Mark Ridley-Thomas’ corruption trial got a final look on Friday at how his correspondence with a University of Southern California dean evolved as his concerns about his son heightened, with a prosecutor describing a conspiracy that he said moved from a “wink and nod” to a “push and shove.”
Emails establish that the now-suspended Los Angeles city councilman discussed his son Sebastian Ridley-Thomas with then-USC School of Social Work Dean Marilyn Flynn early in 2017, but Flynn wasn’t enthusiastic about his prospects at USC: She told a USC employee in May 2017 she was unsure about a “free ride” and unclear about his grades.
Then she met his father for lunch.
Soon, Flynn had told Sebastian that “our two schools will support your tuition” and was planning what she described to a colleague as a “full scholarship for our funds” akin to her prior arrangement with now-Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass.
She was referring to a one-of-its kind offer for Sebastian for duel online degree with the USC Price School of Public Policy, which federal prosecutors allege Ridley-Thomas arranged as an illegal benefit for his support for three Los Angeles County contracts that benefited Flynn’s School of Social Work. Ridley-Thomas at the time was chairman of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors; he was elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 2020 but has been suspended since shortly after his indictment in October 2021.
The first two contracts related to a reentry center and “Probation University” partnership with the Los Angeles County Probation Department authorized by Ridley-Thomas and other county supervisors in August 2017. But Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Morse told jurors on Friday that the motive for the longtime Los Angeles politician’s alleged federal bribery conspiracy formed near the end of 2017, when he learned Sebastian was being investigated for two sexual harassment complaints related to his elected California State Assembly position.
Suddenly, it was imperative Sebastian be admitted to USC “right now,” Morse said.
“This changes the wink-and-nod piece of the conspiracy, and now we’re in the push-and-shove part of the conspiracy,” Morse said in a rebuttal argument that sent the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s 19-count indictment against Ridley-Thomas to the jury about 10 a.m. on Friday. The 12 jurors deliberated until 2:30 p.m. and will return Monday at 8 a.m.
They have in the jury room a huge amount of documents as evidence, including emails between Ridley-Thomas and public relations specialists that Morse said make clear Sebastian “resigned for political reasons,” not for health problems as publicly stated and as his father’s lawyers have argued in trial.
Sebastian’s statehouse investigation, occurring in the height of the #MeToo movement, was both a professional and personal crisis for Ridley-Thomas, Morse said, and it accelerated an agreement he and Flynn had reached months ago regarding the county’s TeleHealth remote counseling program. The program was to be expanded to include a partnership with USC’s School of Social Work that would reimburse the school $120 per session instead of the original rate of $89.
Still, there were hurdles to overcome, the prosecutor said, the first being a “disappointing email” that Jack Knott, then the dean of the School of Public Policy, sent Sebastian in December saying he hadn’t anticipated Sebastian would be a professor and that it wasn’t feasible to finalize his enrollment by January.
Morse reminded jurors of two phone calls that occurred after Sebastian received Knott’s email: One from Sebastian to his father, and another from his father to Flynn. Ridley-Thomas was calling Flynn to say, “‘Hey, Jack Knott needs to get in line. Do what you need to do,” Morse said.
Then came a pivotal Dec. 14, 2017, email regarding John Sherin, then the head of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health and a key gatekeeper for the TeleHealth program: “He’s ready to go,” Ridley-Thomas wrote to Flynn, adding a winking emoji. 😉
The same day, Ridley-Thomas’ Senior Deputy for Human Resources and Child Welfare Emily Williams emailed Flynn an introduction to Bobby Cagle, then the head of Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services. Flynn “gets to work,” too, Morse said, emailing Knott that it was important to extend an offer letter to Sebastian “in the interest of showing MRT that we can deliver.”
Two days later, Flynn emailed Sebastian to say she’s hopeful she can finalize his enrollment by Jan. 15, 2018. Sebastian forward the email to Ridley-Thomas, who replied in a style jurors have seen before: a single emoji. This time, it was a check mark. ✅
“It’s good to be a son of one of the five kings of Los Angeles County,” Morse said Friday, referring to the Board of Supervisors’ “five kings and queens” nickname.
Morse dismissed a suggestion by Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers that “he’s ready to go” referred to Sherin’s readiness for lunch. His rebuttal built on Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsey Greer Dotson’s closing argument on Thursday by highlighting more emails in the months-long paper trail jurors saw through various witnesses, from the direct-examination of FBI Special Agent Brian Adkins to the cross-examinations of Ridley-Thomas’ former staffers.
The judicial system gives prosecutors the final word with juries because the burden of proof is on them, and Morse had the benefit of an overnight break after a 20-minute start Thursday. He began by telling jurors Durie had misstated the law during her two-hour argument by telling them Ridley-Thomas was accused of selling his vote, when the case is instead about the monetization of his policy positions, whether previously held or not.
He returned to the lectern Friday to discuss more of the extensive paper trail Dotson summarized Thursday, including the final act of Ridley-Thomas’ and Flynn’s alleged conspiracy: Their funneling of $100,000 from Ridley-Thomas’ campaign account through USC to United Ways of California for Sebastian’s new policy initiative.
The masked money movement stemmed from Ridley-Thomas’ post-resignation plan for his son to re-emerge in public life as both a scholar and policy expert. Ridley-Thomas first tried to send $100,000 to the social welfare organization Community Partners, but co-founder Paul Vandeventer returned the money and told Ridley-Thomas he had been getting pushback in the office and could not hire Sebastian.
“This is just the sloppy part of the investigation,” Morse said Friday, explaining that Ridley-Thomas turned to Flynn for help “because she had been doing shady stuff” with him already.
“He turned to the person he was already in a criminal position with,” he said, reminding jurors that the $100,000 transaction led USC to oust Flynn from her longtime deanship.
Morse also disputed Durie’s suggestion that USC was out to get Ridley-Thomas, reminding jurors that Ridley-Thomas, a USC graduate, was the School of Public Policy’s commencement speaker in May 2018, around the same time he was arranging the $100,000 transaction with Flynn. He displayed a video of Ridley-Thomas’ speech but did not play it — jurors saw a portion during trial.
“Did USC have any kind of grudge against the defendant? They held him out as one of their most successful graduates,” Morse said.
Morse’s ending reiterated the prosecutorial importance of the email that rocked last year’s Los Angeles mayoral election: “I did the same for Karen Bass — full scholarship for our funds.” Ridley-Thomas’ defense argued Flynn meant “from” instead of “for”: Durie displayed the email during her closing with “for” crossed out in red and “from” written in its place.
The defense also argued Ridley-Thomas didn’t know Flynn was breaking USC policy regarding the $100,000 payment, but Morse said that as a 30-year politician, Ridley-Thomas surely knew what she was up to. The email is one of “so many emails that show what Marilyn Flynn’s intent was,” Morse said, and why she was catering to Ridley-Thomas.
Like Adkins did in his testimony, prosecutors emphasized to jurors the context of Flynn’s “from our funds” line regarding Bass: She was responding to USC vice provost Mark Todd, who wrote, “MRT has lots of discretionary money. We could even put his face on the side of the clinic van.”
Morse ended his rebuttal by reminding the jury of something displayed on the courtroom TV screens and repeated by Dotson throughout her argument: “Public officials do not get to monetize their positions.”
The jury asks its first question
The 12 jurors deliberating Ridley-Thomas’ 19 charges left a note before they left on Friday: “Does a thing of value have to be tangible or can it be an action, favor or information?” (Judge Fischer said they omitted the ‘n’ in tangible.)
Prosecutors told Fischer in court that the answer is no: A thing of value does not have to be tangible. Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers asked for the weekend to draft their suggested answer.
Prosecutors filed a brief on Saturday detailing their position, then filed a revised brief on Sunday addressing the defense proposal.
As of 8:30 p.m. Sunday, Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers had not publicly filed their proposal, but they sent it to prosecutors, who describe it in their revised brief as “legally and factually incorrect.”
Prosecutors included as an exhibit an email Ridley-Thomas’ lawyer Ramsey Fisher, an associate at Morrison Foerster LLP, sent prosecutors Sunday morning that proposes telling the jury the thing of value “does not need to be tangible but it cannot be information.”
The defense’s proposed response continues, “However, in order to find that the defendant acted corruptly under number 3 of Court’s Instruction No. 20, you must find that the value of the business, transaction, or series of transactions of the County was $5,000 or more.”
Fisher told prosecutors, “The rationale for this response is there is no evidentiary foundation for any information that would have any value.”
But prosecutors say not only is it legally correct to tell the jury the thing of value doesn’t have to be tangible, “there is a factual basis for information being the thing of value here, and the suggestion that information cannot be considered is incorrect and will confuse the jury.”
From their brief:
“Over the course of a year, Flynn provided defendant information repeatedly in the form of promises related to Sebastian Ridley-Thomas’s admission, scholarship, paid professorship, and the funneled $100,000. For instance, Marilyn Flynn promised that Sebastian Ridley-Thomas would receive admission and the full tuition scholarship prior to the August 1, 2017 vote. That promise was conveyed as information to defendant. Telling the jury broadly that information cannot be a thing of value in this case, particularly when the Court and parties have no insight into what the jury note is referencing, is legally incorrect, improper, and would invade the proper province of the jury as the arbiter of the facts here. It runs the serious and appreciable risk of signaling to the jury that Flynn’s promises to defendant are insufficient to constitute a “thing of value,” which is no doubt why defendant seeks this instruction. That is legally and factually incorrect.”
Attorneys are due before Judge Fischer at 7:30 a.m. Monday to finalize the answer. The judge said she’ll respond to the note in writing.
I’m scheduled to speak with Spectrum News 1 Anchor Kate Cagle (one of the best!) about the trial in a 5:30 a.m. Zoom interview, so that will delay my arrival in Los Angeles until after Fischer’s 7:30 a.m. hearing has ended. But I’ll find out what she decided and keep you updated. Follow me on Twitter and watch for more articles, including a look at Ridley-Thomas’ 19 charges and a look at why Flynn didn’t testify and why jurors didn’t hear of her guilty plea. (It’s hearsay unless she testifies.)
Closing arguments: March 23: Defense says USC’s 'VIP' treatment made scholarship for Mark Ridley-Thomas' son 'business as usual'
Defense witnesses: March 22: Defense rests in suspended L.A. City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas' federal corruption trial
FBI Special Agent Brian Adkins: March 20: More from the FBI agent's testimony in L.A. City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas' criminal trial
MRT and Ralph Frammolino emails, USC whistleblower Michele Clark, USC employee Adriana Gonzalez: March 18: Prosecutors rest their public corruption case against L.A. City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas
Voir dire, evidentiary hearing: (I missed the first three trial days) March 8: primer on suspended Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas' bribery trial
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