‘Fulsome' evidence supports Mark Ridley-Thomas' USC bribery convictions, prosecutors say
Two new filings say the Los Angeles politician's lawyers failed to object in trial to issues they now say warrant a new trial, including testimony from an FBI agent.
Links to both documents are available at the end of the article for paid subscribers.
Federal prosecutors say the evidence of Los Angeles politician Mark Ridley-Thomas’ bribery conspiracy with the University of Southern California is “far more than sufficient” to support his seven felony convictions, and they’re asking a judge to reject his requests for a new trial or acquittal.
The FBI agent who investigated Ridley-Thomas didn’t lie on the witness stand, and a jury instruction that drew attention to his conflicting testimony was “unnecessary” but sufficient to address any possible problem, according to a 76-page opposition to Ridley-Thomas’ motion for new trial.
At the same time, prosecutors say Ridley-Thomas’ argument for acquittal is a “factually baseless and legally incorrect Rule 29 attack on the jury’s lawful and presumptively valid verdict.”
“Ample evidence supported every element of every charge. And even where defendant advances a legally incorrect theory of what the government was required to prove, the government’s evidence was so fulsome that sufficient evidence satisfies defendant’s heightened burden of proof,” according to the 55-page opposition to the acquittal motion.
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Filed under Rule 29 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, the acquittal motion is a more expansive version of the acquittal motion Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers filed during trial. It was filed on May 1 alongside his motion for new trial, which is a common post-conviction request that isn’t often granted.
A hearing on both motions is scheduled for June 26 at 8:30 a.m. in Los Angeles before U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer, who presided over the two-week trial in March. Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers have until June 6 to reply to prosecutors’ oppositions.
Ridley-Thomas, 68, is out of custody awaiting sentencing, currently scheduled for Aug. 21. He was stripped of his seat on the Los Angeles City Council after his convictions, which involve a bribery conspiracy with the dean of the USC School of Social Work, Marilyn Flynn, in 2017 and 2018 when he was an elected member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Now retired, 84-year-old Flynn pleaded guilty to a bribery charge in September 2022 and is scheduled to be sentenced on June 26. Prosecutors aren’t recommending a prison sentence for her, but Ridley-Thomas is expected to face at least several years in prison.
Jurors deliberated nearly five days before convicting Ridley-Thomas on March 30 of single counts of bribery and conspiracy, as well as four counts of honest services wire fraud and a single count of honest services mail fraud. The convictions relate to his donation of $100,000 in campaign money to USC in conjunction with the university’s donation of $100,000 to United Way.
Prosecutors said Flynn used her school to funnel Ridley-Thomas’ money to United Way to benefit Ridley-Thomas’ son Sebastian’s new policy initiative, in exchange for Ridley-Thomas steering lucrative Los Angeles County contracts to the school. But jurors couldn’t agreed that Sebastian’s USC admission, scholarship and professorship were part of a conspiracy, which resulted in not guilty verdicts for one count of honest services mail fraud and 11 counts of honest services wire fraud because those counts were related to the scholarship and job.
Prosecutors cite Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers’ lack of objections
The flings late Monday from the U.S. Attorney’s Office offer new insight into the trial that ended Ridley-Thomas’ career as one of Los Angeles’ most prominent politicians.
Friends and other supporters filled the gallery each trial day, and the Los Angeles Times reported that political loyalists funded his multimillion-dollar defense.
But the lead trial lawyer, Daralyn Durie of Morrison & Foerster LLP, is experienced mostly in patent litigation, not white-collar criminal law, and prosecutors’ new filings focus in part on her team’s lack of trial-time objections to many of the issues raised in the post-conviction motions.
That includes two of the three alleged false statements by FBI Special Agent Brian Adkins: One about now-former Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health director John Sherin’s justifications for extending the TeleHealth contract at the center of the conspiracy, and the other about Ridley-Thomas threatening to cancel or rescind contracts.
Prosecutors say neither statement from Adkins is erroneous. They also say both statements were elicited by Durie during her cross-examination of Adkins, and she failed to follow up on both occasions. When Adkins told Durie that Sherin’s interview led him to believe that his justifications for supporting the TeleHealth contract weren’t genuine, Durie “responded ‘All right,’ and shifted topics.”
“Counsel declined to follow up or ask the agent to what he was referring,” according to the new trial opposition filed Monday. “Had counsel elected to ask the agent what he meant, the jury might have learned that Sherin — the individual who publicly asked the Board of Supervisors to renew the Telehealth contract — privately disparaged it.”
Prosecutors say the same thing happened with Adkins’ second alleged false statement about Ridley-Thomas threatening to cancel or rescind contracts. The new trial motion argues Adkins was wrong when he said he learned that through an interview, but prosecutors say he wasn’t given a chance to explain.
“Had counsel asked the agent what the agent meant, the jury might have learned that topics discussed during witness interviews support the agent’s response,” according to Monday’s opposition.
Prosectors say Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers didn’t ask for a curative instruction regarding the testimony, nor did they request a mistrial, “because they were unwarranted.”
“Defendant now seeks the drastic remedy of an entirely new trial based upon the agent’s truthful testimony simply because defendant did not like the answers. Such belated grasping at straws lays bare defendant’s position as meritless. There is no error. And there is certainly no plain error affecting defendant’s substantial rights.”
The third statement concerned the precise number of documents Adkins reviewed, and it was addressed through the additional instruction Fischer gave jurors, which prosecutors said “unnecessary and unfairly suggested to the jury that the agent had done something wrong and intentionally so.”
Still, prosecutors said, the instruction “cured any harm from the statement.”
“The Court flagged the purported inconsistency, signaled to the jury that it should give added scrutiny to the agent’s testimony, and expressly stated that the inconsistency could be used to decide whether to believe the agent at all,” according to Monday’s filing.
Prosecutors also say Durie mischaracterized Adkins’ original testimony when she elicited his testimony about the alleged conflicting statements regarding the amount of documents he reviewed.
“On direct, the agent testified that he had ‘reviewed’ approximately ‘400-something’ thousand pages of discovery. He never stated that he had reviewed ‘all’ discovery, in other words, every single page. On cross, defense counsel mischaracterized the agent’s direct testimony, telling him that he had testified to ‘reading’ ‘all’ discovery. That was not the agent’s testimony.”
Prosecutors ‘walked through a door that defendant opened’
Prosecutors also take issue with the defense’s description of Adkins as the “star” prosecution witness when his role “was to shepherd the introduction of hundreds of emails and place those emails in chronological order with phone records.”
“The agent’s testimony lasted the longest, not because he was the star, but because the coconspirators’ emails he laid the foundation to admit shone the brightest,” prosecutors wrote. “Ultimately, the emails and documents, toll records, and testimony from percipient witnesses about the words and actions of defendant, his son, and Flynn were the crux of this case.”
Adkins’ testimony was the basis for another key argument in Ridley-Thomas’ new trial motion regarding alleged vouching by the prosecution.
But just as they did with the arguments about Adkins’ alleged false statements, prosecutors point to the defense lawyers’ own actions in trial for refutation.
The testimony in question occurred during Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsey Greer Dotson’s re-direct of Adkins, and it followed cross-examination that questioned Adkins’ motives and implied he was biased against Ridley-Thomas. Judge Fischer said in trial that Dotson’s questions were valid, and prosecutors’ filing Monday night says nothing has changed: “[T]he government asked questions to correct the false and misleading narrative fostered by defendant.”
“In the end, the government walked through a door that defendant opened,” prosecutors wrote. “The government asked the agent questions to explain his investigative steps, rebut allegations that he targeted defendant, and properly respond to issues raised by defendant. There was no misconduct.”
One line of questioning specifically addressed an email Flynn sent about Karen Bass, now the mayor of Los Angeles, that roiled the mayoral election when it was first reported by the Los Angeles Times in September 2022.
“We will offer a full scholarship between the two schools. I did the same for Karen Bass -- full scholarship for our funds.”
In cross, Durie asked if Adkins saw the email, which was Exhibit 10, “as evidence of a corrupt conspiracy,” and Adkins said, “It lays it out, black and white, yeah.” Implying Flynn meant “from our funds” instead of “for our funds,” Durie then asked Adkins if he saw “typos” or a “wrong word” in Flynn’s emails, which he said he had.
“Counsel used that testimony to challenge the agent’s interpretation of Exhibit 10 by offering an alternative interpretation -- in essence, that Flynn'’s statement in Exhibit 10 was merely a typo, not evidence of any illicit quid pro quo,” according to the opposition. “With this questioning, counsel insinuated that the agent had been sloppy and jumped to hasty conclusions about defendant’s corrupt intent.”
The opposition also points to the defense’s lack of objections to some of the statements they now argue were vouching, including Adkins’ testimony that Ridley-Thomas and Flynn’s relationship “appeared to turn corrupt.”
“The absence of a contemporaneous vouching objection suggests that, at trial, the statement was not understood as defendant now suggests but rather as the more benign statement regarding the basis for the agent’s continued investigation.”
Closing arguments are allowed to ‘strike hard blows’
Prosecutors also work to dismantle Ridley-Thomas’ argument that they unfairly interjected opinion into argument and unfairly maligned his lawyers.
Case law specifically allows for prosecutors to “strike hard blows” in argument, and Monday’s opposition cites examples well beyond the supposed improper opinions Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers allege in their motion for new trial.
The examples include:
Prosecutors characterizing “the defense’s case as ‘smoke and mirrors,’” United States v. Ruiz, 10 F.3d 1077 (9th Cir. 2013)
Prosecutors referring “to defense counsel’s argument as ‘trash,’” Williams v. Borg, 139 F.3d 737, 745 (9th Cir. 1998)
Prosecutors “described a defense as ‘fabricated’ with ‘figments of [the defendant’s] imagination,’” United States v. Birges, 723 F.2d 666, 671-72 & n.1 (9th Cir. 1984)
Prosecutors referring to defense argument as an “octopus squirting ink” and asserting that “they gotta hide all the facts, cloud the facts, throw up all kinds of dirt, squirt the ink” was not plain error. United States v. Matthews, 278 F.3d 880, 884 (9th Cir. 2002)
Prosecutors referring to defense counsel’s characterization of the government’s investigation as a “web of deception” was appropriate where it constituted an “invited reply” to defense’s argument. United States v. Sayetsitty, 107 F.3d 1405, 1409 (9th Cir. 1997)
“Beyond that, even if there is error in passionate argument, it takes a lot to disturb a jury’s presumptively valid verdict,” according to Monday’s opposition.
Prosecutors also address Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers claims that they unfairly insulted them, saying they didn’t malign defense counsel “but permissibly critiqued defendant’s tactics and arguments.” Prosecutors again point to the defense’s own lack of action in trial: They complain now about a comment made during rebuttal, but they didn’t object in trial or ask for a curative instruction.
“Immediately after this exchange, the Court asked defense counsel if there was anything to discuss, and counsel responded “no” and thanked the Court,” prosecutors wrote. “Even if a curative instruction were warranted (it was not), the failure to ask for one is invited error.”
The same goes for Dotson’s comment in her closing about a “manufactured defense.”
“The government did not comment on defense counsel but, instead, permissibly critiqued defendant’s arguments,” according to Monday’s filing. “And, contrary to defendant’s contention, the government’s argument drew permissible inferences from the record and was not improperly inflammatory.”
Prosecutors also address Ridley-Thomas’ argument that their case “was predicated on a supposed conflict of interest in failing to disclose the existence of that donation,” which legally cannot be a basis for an honest services fraud conviction.
“At no time did the government ever argue that a conflict of interest was a sufficient basis to convict defendant of any charge,” prosecutors wrote. “Time and again, the government embraced its burden of showing that the exchange at issue for the Honest Services Fraud convictions must have involved bribery.”
The opposition to the acquittal motion also addresses this issue when arguing prosecutors proved the bribery scheme included a material act.
“Advancing a spurious claim divorced from the trial record, defendant argues that '[t]he government did not even attempt to provide proof of materiality.' He is wrong. The government offered hundreds of exhibits and seven days of witness testimony demonstrating scores of acts by defendant that were capable of influencing -- and indeed, did influence -- a person or entity’s acts that were central and integral to the scheme here.”
Defense witnesses including Ann Ravel: 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
Links to PDFs of the new filings are available below for paid subscribers. If you haven’t purchased a subscription, please consider doing so to support my independent legal affairs journalism.