More from the FBI agent's testimony in L.A. City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas' criminal trial
The politician's Fourth of July 2018 emails with a public relations specialist about his son's statehouse investigation, obtained through a subpoena, were shown to jurors.
Six months after Sebastian Ridley-Thomas’ resignation, the California State Assembly hadn’t given up on him.
Investigators still were looking into the sexual harassment allegations that had driven the son of powerful Los Angeles politician Mark Ridley-Thomas from elected office, so his father spent some of the 2018 Fourth of July holiday trying to figure out what to do.
Public relations specialist Ralph Frammolino was there to help: The founder of PivotHound Communications emailed with the elder Ridley-Thomas advising him to push back on the investigation by questioning the statehouse’s jurisdiction and saying its sole purpose was to subject his son to “public ridicule.”
“How is this different from a smear campaign?” Frammolino suggested Ridley-Thomas ask the state officials.
Ridley-Thomas, then the chairman of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, apparently liked what he read: He replied with a lone fist bump emoji. 👊🏿
Jurors in the suspended Los Angeles city councilman’s federal corruption trial saw the emails last week during testimony from FBI Special Agent Brian Adkins, a prosecution witness who unknowingly presented the defense with an opportunity when he said the Independence Day email exchange came amid a push by statehouse investigators to interview Sebastian.
As Ridley-Thomas’ lead attorney Daralyn Durie tried to emphasize in her cross-examination, Adkins didn’t mention the fact that Sebastian had already sat for a voluntary statehouse interview in June when the agent told the jury that Ridley-Thomas and Frammolino were trying to help him avoid one in July.
“I believe my timing may have been mixed up a bit,” Adkins testified under repeat questioning from Durie, a partner at Morrison Foerster LLP in San Francisco.
Prosecutors are trying to fit Ridley-Thomas and Frammolino’s work for Sebastian into a larger narrative about Ridley-Thomas’ deep interest in helping his son find a suitable landing spot after his December 2017 resignation as the elected representative for California’s 54th Assembly District. That interest led to what prosecutors describe as a felonious quid pro quo conspiracy with the dean of University of Southern California’s School of Social Services, Marilyn Flynn, that involved Ridley-Thomas steering lucrative county contracts to Flynn’s school in exchange for Flynn’s giving Sebastian a scholarship for an online master’s degree program created especially for him, as well as a joint professorship with the USC School of Public Policy.
Now retired, Flynn admitted in her September plea agreement to a felony bribery charge that she served as a “conduit” for $100,000 that Ridley-Thomas funneled from his political campaign through USC to United Way for his son’s new policy initiative.
Objections, sidebars interrupt FBI agent’s cross
Adkins was at the initial meeting between federal authorities and USC employees in July 2018 that’s now threatening to end Ridley-Thomas’ political career and possibly put him in prison for at least several years. The agent’s career investigating public corruption began in Chicago and currently has him based in Orange County and assigned to the high-profile criminal probe of ex-Mayor Harry Sidhu and the Angel Stadium redevelopment deal.
Durie’s focus on Adkins’ discrepancy regarding Sebastian’s interview was meant to kickstart his cross-examination as the lead investigator behind Ridley-Thomas’ 19-count indictment. But it was so interrupted by objections that it stretched into a 20-minute ordeal, highlighting the hazards of an approach to questioning that Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsay Greer Dotson said amounted to testimony by Durie.
U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer sustained most of Dotson’s objections, calling several sidebars that interrupted the examination so the attorneys could talk privately without the jury listening. It didn’t stop Durie from obtaining the key testimony from Adkins about his possible “mixed up” timing, which supports the defense argument that Ridley-Thomas is the victim of a sloppy investigation and a rush to judgment.
Still, Dotson’s response in redirect highlighted the difficulty of undermining a document-based prosecution: She pointed out that whether Sebastian had already volunteered for an interview or not doesn’t change the fact that the 2018 Fourth of July email exchange showed his father and a hired public relations specialist discussing how to “tamp down on” the statehouse investigation. Her direct-exam had emphasized the timing and relationship of so many seemingly ordinary events and how they related to Flynn and Ridley-Thomas’ communications.
The first county contracts at issue involved a partnership between the privately funded USC and Los Angeles County Probation Department and Department of Mental Health. The last was an amendment months later to Los Angeles County’s TeleHealth contract that benefited Flynn’s school. Prosecutors’ case is centered on a trove of emails and documents memorializing what Adkins has described as a “black and white” quid pro quo agreement, foremost a written letter that Flynn had an assistant hand deliver to Ridley-Thomas’ office. Adkins’ direct-examination put many of the emails before the jury, as Dotson emphasized the timing of Flynn and Ridley-Thomas’ actions.
“Did Marilyn Flynn get everything she wanted from the TeleHealth amendment?”
“Yes, she did,” Adkins answered. He also affirmed that the amendments matched what was outlined in her letter to Ridley-Thomas.
“At the time, had Marilyn Flynn delivered on the benefits to the defendant’s son?” Dotson asked.
“Yes, she had,” Adkins said.
‘I don’t think she was fully informed’
Durie’s attack on Adkins’ credibility wasn’t limited to his self-declared “mixed up” timing: It included a series of questions about his investigation that rehashed several prosecution theories while eliciting unusual testimony from Adkins about his background and personal comments he made to his interview subjects.
In civil cases, defense attorneys planning their cross-examinations have the benefit of information obtained through the discovery process. No such discovery process exists in criminal cases, so Durie was working with what the prosecution presented, the investigative interview notes and the standard defense approaches to impugning credibility and highlighting possible biases.
She tried to build on Adkins’ “mixed up” testimony to infer he’d overlooked key possibilities in his investigation, such as pointing to Flynn’s occasional typos when asking if he considered whether she mistakenly said “for” instead of “from” when she wrote regarding Sebastian’s scholarship, “I did the same for Karen Bass — full scholarship for our funds," referring to the now mayor of Los Angeles. (Read more in my first article, which published Saturday.)
Other questions focused on the seemingly ordinary nature of the actions that prosecutors have presented as evidence of a white-collar criminal conspiracy, such as asking Adkins if he believes anyone who supported the so-called “Probation University” item was committing a crime. Durie pointed to Supervisor Janice Hahn’s sponsorship of the item and asked Adkins if he’s trying to say that Hahn is corrupt.
“No,” Adkins said, “I’m saying I don’t think she was fully informed” of everything going on with Ridley-Thomas and USC when she sponsored the item. Adkins said it wasn’t solely Ridley-Thomas’ support for the probation contract that drove his investigation, it’s “the timing in which he supported” the item.
Questioning motives, suggesting bias
Durie displayed prosecution demonstrative exhibits showing spikes in phone contact between Flynn and Ridley-Thomas that Adkins said matched the conspiracy timeline, suggesting he had overlooked other reasons for the contacts such as problems with the annual homeless count because he didn’t interview Ridley-Thomas’ staffers.
She also addressed the sealed letter that prosecutors say memorializes Flynn and Ridley-Thomas’ quid pro quo, asking if Adkins considered that the dean had an “innocent reason” for wanting the letter to be kept secret. She then pointed to a line in the letter 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.” It was in reference to the need for Sebastian’s new policy initiative, and Durie asked Adkins if he’d considered that the statement about “a committee of white academics” being so sensitive Flynn didn’t want it circulating in an email. Adkins said he didn’t believe the USC employee who delivered the letter, Brenda Weisel, “really knew the full extent of the conspiracy.”
At one point, Durie suggested Adkins ignored USC’s motives for contacting federal authorities, to which Adkins replied he knew USC “may have had their reasons for bringing us the allegation” but he didn’t think it affected his investigation.
He said later, “USC was concerned about their reputation in the press with regards to other scandals at the time.”
In an apparent attempt to cast Adkins as biased and set on bringing a case against Ridley-Thomas, Durie repeated comments jurors hadn’t heard from his interviews such as his belief that “there’s just as much corruption out here as there is in Chicago, maybe more” and his statement to John Sherin, then the director of Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health that he’d “actually witnessed something that was a crime” regarding Ridley-Thomas’ conduct. Durie also confirmed with Adkins that he’d told one interviewee that “as a citizen who has to pay taxes, who has to live in this state, it makes me sick to see this.”
Old relationships, new corruption?
In her redirect, Dotson worked to refute not only Durie’s suggestion that Adkins had rushed to judge Ridley-Thomas but that he’d ignored the politician’s long-established support for the probation and TeleHealth causes at the center of the alleged bribery scheme. She presented the agent with a hypothetical: If “the defendant” had supported every single aspect of the probation and TeleHealth contracts for the last 100 years, would he have stopped investigating the alleged quid pro quo with Flynn?
“No,” Adkins answered. He said Flynn and Ridley-Thomas’ may have had a long-established relationship that was above board, but, “at some point, that relationship appeared to turn corrupt.” He said that kind of change is common in corrupt relationships, just as it’s common for politicians to try to monetize long-held policy positions. Dotson asked if it’s “inconsistent” with his experiences to see a politician try to reap personal benefits for actions he would take regardless.
“No, in fact, that’s quite normal,” Adkins answered.
Dotson also used her re-direct as an opportunity to go over the initial letter that Flynn wrote to Ridley-Thomas — it begins “Dear MRT” — while emphasizing that no one outside them knew of its contents. In cross, Adkins said he saw the letter as “a memorialization of an in-person conversation that the defendant and Marilyn Flynn had.” He reiterated that in re-direct, and also pointed to an email Flynn sent USC professor Jacquelyn McCrosky shortly after the letter, regarding the proposed county probation contract. Flynn wrote, “Yes, I talked with Mark about this, and I am very happy to see that he was good as his word.”
Adkins testified that he, “saw this as additional confirmation of the conversation they had — the in person meeting that she had — that she memorialized in the confidential letter,” referring to Flynn and Ridley-Thomas.
Dotson also asked Adkins to explain why he didn’t interview Ridley-Thomas’s staff members but did interview some of Flynn’s. The agent said Ridley-Thomas’ office was a “siloed environment” and staffers had an “obvious loyalty,” while Flynn resigned her deanship in September 2018 and had no control over the USC employees when Adkins interviewed them.
“Sitting here today, is the defendant still an elected official?” Dotson asked.
“Yes, he is,” Adkins answered. (Ridley-Thomas was suspended from the Los Angeles City Council in October 2021, but the Council reinstated his pay in December 2022.)
A few miscellaneous trial notes
The Karen Bass emails: My article on Saturday explained how Durie’s cross of Adkins addressed Flynn’s email about now-Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, the one reported by the Los Angeles Times last September. The article mentions a second email dated May 24, 2017, (before the “for our funds” email in June 2017) in which Flynn said regarding Sebastian, “I intend to open every door for him, just as I did with Karen.” As I was going through my handwritten trial notes for this article, I noticed another line from the May 24 email that came up in testimony. It’s Flynn telling a USC employee about Sebastian’s enrollment plans, and she writes that he “is the son of Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and an elected representative to the State Assembly” and adds, “I intend to open every door for him, just as I did with Karen.” Flynn also writes, “I am very anxious to admit him” and says Sebastian “would be the second elected official, following in the steps of Karen Bass.” This goes to what Dotson emphasized with Adkins about the importance of timing and context. I imagine jurors will hear more about the Bass emails in the prosecution’s closing argument.
Prosecution rests: As my article Saturday explained, prosecutors rested their case on Friday. They did not call Sherin, the former county mental health director, to testify, nor did they call Frammolino, the public relations expert Ridley-Thomas hired to help address Sebastian’s sexual harassment allegations. Adkins testified that he subpoenaed Frammolino’s PivotHound Communications and located a retention contract regarding the matter. He also obtained the July 4, 2018, emails shown to jurors. All were entered as evidence during Adkins’ testimony.
The defense witness list: We’re not going to get to see it, but Judge Fischer on Monday ordered Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers to provide prosecutors their witness list by 10 a.m.
When prosecutors asked for it in court on Friday, Durie said they are welcome to produce authority stating the legal requirement to do so, and her team will respond. Instead of resolving the issue right there and ordering the defense to produce a witness list, Judge Fischer told them to follow the court’s rules. Prosecutors then filed a motion asking for the witness list, calling the defense’s position “pure gamesmanship, especially where defendant has represented that he plans to present a week-long case.”
They said requiring the defense to produce a witness list could help address possible issues before testimony begins to avoid “lengthy sidebars” that will “result in the unnecessary expenditure of more of this Court and the jury’s time.” “No witness illustrated this problem more,” they said, than Sebastian’s doctor.
“It is well-settled that medical professionals must be qualified as an expert when testifying to any opinion formed outside their course of treatment for the patient at issue. See Goodman v. Staples The Off. Superstore, LLC, 644 F.3d 817, 826 (9th Cir. 2011). Under the current plan, the government has no idea if defendant even intends to call such a witness. Waiting to the last-minute to brief this issue puts the government and the Court at a disadvantage. Such gamesmanship is unnecessary, particularly where the government has rested.”
Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers opposition said Fischer’s local rules don’t actually say anything about witness lists needing to be released to the other side. But Fischer ordered them to produce one, anyway, then issued another order saying the submitted list, which isn’t publicly available, “names numerous potential witnesses who appear to have testimony that will be cumulative and likely uncontested.”
“The Court will require the defense to make an offer of proof as to any witness whose testimony appears to be needlessly cumulative in order to avoid wasting the time of the jury,” Fischer wrote.
The Rule 29 motion: They’re willing to force written briefing over a witness list, but Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers aren’t sure they’ll be filing a written motion for a judgment of acquittal under Rule 29 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. Durie said on Friday that she can submit a written brief or argue orally only, and she asked Fischer for her preference.
My notes don’t capture the conclusion, but it’s surprising to me that a politician like Ridley-Thomas wouldn’t be jumping at the chance to have his lawyers file a written, legalese-laden brief explaining exactly why this federal criminal case against him legally cannot stand — it’s so weak Fischer should acquit him now and not even let the case go to the jury. That’s what Rule 29 motions argue.
The motions are standard in criminal cases, and they have a standard civil-side counterpart: Motions brought under Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. Motions for directed verdicts are standard in state court, too. Judges don’t often grant them, which could be why some attorneys don’t bother with written motions and only argue orally. But written Rule 29 motions also serve as detailed written arguments against criminal prosecutions, memorialized in legal brief format for all of time, complete with quotable arguments (maybe) and case law citations (ideally).
Ridley-Thomas has public relations people sitting in the gallery watching his trial. They are taking notes. I’m not sure what they’re going to end up doing, and I know their presence doesn’t mean I’m free to go watch the Post Malone trial downstairs all week and rely on them to keep me in the loop about what’s going on in Judge Fischer’s courtroom. But you’d think they’d be jumping at the chance to send out a press release highlighting the Rule 29 motion and explaining that the judge is going to consider acquitting Ridley-Thomas herself. Someone just might write about it! (That’s how I first learned of this legal concept back early in my career with The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. A reporter wrote about a judge rejecting a motion for directed verdict and another reporter explained to me — a cub — that we really don’t need to actually write about those motions unless a judge grants one, which basically never happens.)
In Vanessa Bryant and Chris Chester’s lawsuits against Los Angeles County over the misuse of photos from the deadly helicopter crash, the county’s defense team at Miller Barondess LLP wrote a 36-page Rule 50 motion after the $30 million verdict that the attorneys acknowledged in a filing would increase the county’s (a.k.a the taxpayers’) attorney fees. U.S. District Judge John Walter hasn’t ruled on the motion, and the county has since decided to settle with Bryant for nearly $30 million, and with Chester for nearly $20 million. If Miller Barondess will file a post-trial written Rule 50 motion in that case, you’d think a politician with a vested interest in the publicity surrounding his criminal trial would file a written Rule 29 motion.
Maybe he still will. Stay tuned.
Defense evidentiary brief: Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers revealed Monday night that they will be calling Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl as a witness. They are asking Judge Fischer to prohibit prosecutors from asking Kuehl about the sheriff’s investigation relating to a Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority contract with the non-profit organization Peace Over Violence, which included a search warrant served at Kuehl’s home last September.
“Facts concerning that investigation are not relevant to the charges against Mr. Ridley-Thomas,” according to a 16-page brief. “The government should not be permitted to inquire into Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority.”
The brief also complains that prosecutors won’t stipulate to a correction regarding alleged misstatements by Adkins that I’m betting Judge Fischer will say could have been addressed in cross-examination. Read the full brief here.
The judge on Friday suggested attorneys consider possible issues regarding future witness testimony as a way of cutting down on the truly remarkable amount of sidebars that are happening in this trial. Some judges such as Judge Walter, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter and U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney won’t allow them, but Fischer calls them so often that I think her ‘S’ middle initial really does stand for Sidebar. Let’s see how this week goes.
Should jurors hear about Flynn’s charge? Prosecutors on Monday filed a motion asking Judge Fischer to allow them to tell the jury that Flynn has been charged with a crime. They say it’s necessary to rebut Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers’ argument that the investigation was biased in favor of USC and against Ridley-Thomas.
“Throughout this trial, beginning even with voir dire, defendant has suggested, implicitly and even expressly, that the government and USC had a bias, even a racial bias, against the defendant and his son,” according to the motion. “During the testimony of the government’s lead investigator, defendant sought to connect this alleged bias to the government’s investigation and suggest it led to the government targeting defendant.”
The motion continues, “Therefore, informing the jury that the government charged a Caucasian woman in addition to defendant would cure any of the improper racial bias alleged by the defense against the government’s investigation here and provide the jury necessary context in evaluating defense’s insinuations of USC bias.”
I will be at the courthouse all week. Follow me on Twitter for updates, and stay tuned for more articles, including a breakdown of Ridley-Thomas’ 19 charges and the jury verdict form. Please subscribe and tell your friends to subscribe.
Note: For the sake of reader clarity and reader clarity only, I am calling Sebastian Ridley-Thomas by his first name and Mark Ridley-Thomas by his last name to avoid always having to differentiate between “the elder” and “the younger” Ridley-Thomas.
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