Jury convicts Mark Ridley-Thomas of bribery, conspiracy in federal corruption trial
The suspended Los Angeles city councilman was convicted of seven of 19 charges for a bribery scheme with a now-retired dean at the University of Southern California.
A federal jury on Thursday convicted suspended Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas of seven felonies, including bribery and conspiracy, for steering county contracts to the University of Southern California in exchange for a dean funneling $100,000 in campaign money to benefit his son .
U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer read the verdict aloud about 11:20 a.m. at the new federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles.
Ridley-Thomas had no visible reaction as he sat at the defense table with his attorneys. He was found not guilty of one count of honest services mail fraud and 11 counts of honest services wire fraud, but jurors also convicted him of a single honest services mail fraud count and four honest services wire fraud counts.
The fraud convictions relate to $100,000 in campaign money he sent through USC to United Ways of California to fund a directorship for the initiative his son Sebastian Ridley-Thomas started in the wake of his resignation from the California State Assembly. The jury acquitted on fraud charges related to a full scholarship and part-time professorship Flynn extended Sebastian. The verdict followed nearly 11 days of testimony and 4 1/2 days of deliberation.
Fischer scheduled sentencing for Aug. 14. Ridley-Thomas remains out of custody; he left the courthouse without speaking with reporters. His wife, Avis Ridley-Thomas, attended every day of trial, as did many friends.
Convictions on ‘critical counts’
In a press conference outside the courthouse, Martin Estrada, the U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, said the convictions “reflect the hard work of the FBI and my office — the U.S. Attorney’s Office — to bring to justice an individual who abused his position of power.”
He was joined by the trial prosecutors: Assistant U.S. Attorneys Lindsey Greer Dotson, Michael Morse and Thomas Rybarczyk as well as Mack Jenkins, the chief of the U.S. Attorney’s Office criminal section; FBI Special Agent Brian Adkins, the lead investigator; and two other federal agents.
“The critical counts in this case, which were conspiracy to commit bribery and bribery itself, were found and convicted in this case,” Estrada said.
Ridley-Thomas, 68, has been one of Los Angeles’ most prominent politicians for 30 years.
He served on the Los Angeles City Council from 1991 to 2002, was a state representative from 2002 to 2006 and a state senator from 2006 to 2008. He was elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 2008 and served 12 years before his election to the City Council in 2020.
He was suspended from the Council after he was indicted in October 2021, though his pay was reinstated last December, with backpay. His name still is featured on buildings throughout the city as well as a pedestrian bridge, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Los Angeles City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson wrote after the verdict, “When those in power chose to forget our community, Mark Ridley-Thomas centered and uplifted us. We are called to acknowledge this history in the coming days as we navigate the next steps.”
Los Angeles City Council President Paul Krekorian said the convictions mean Ridley-Thomas is officially removed from the Council.
“I am deeply saddened that a career of extraordinary public service and achievement has been brought to a close in this way,” Krekorian said in a statement.
‘Wink and nod’ to ‘push and shove’
Ridley'-Thomas’ 19 charges related to actions he took while Board of Supervisors chairman in 2017 and 2018.
Prosecutors alleged a conspiracy with Marilyn Louise Flynn, the now-retired dean of the privately funded USC’s School of Social Work. Morse told jurors it moved from a “wink and nod” to a “push and shove” after Sebastian resigned from his elected State Assembly seat in December 2017 amid a statehouse investigation into two sexual harassment complaints against him.
The “wink and nod,” Morse said, involved two county contracts in August 2017 related to a county probation center located near the USC campus and a partnership between Flynn’s school and the Los Angeles County Probation Department touted as Probation University.
At the time, Flynn and Ridley-Thomas had been discussing Sebastian possibly enrolling at USC, and Flynn had sent him a sealed letter that mentioned working with Sebastian and outlined the contracts Ridley-Thomas went on to pass as a county supervisor.
His scholarship and part-time professorship took heightened urgency after his resignation, and prosecutors said Ridley-Thomas and Flynn’s arrangement involving the $100,000 was connected to an amendment to Los Angeles County’s TeleHealth virtual counseling program contract that lucratively looped in Flynn’s school.
Flynn, 84, was originally charged with the same 19 counts as Ridley-Thomas, but prosecutors dismissed 18 counts after she pleaded guilty to a single bribery charge last September.
Her plea agreement involved her admitting to acting as a “conduit” for the $100,000 in an effort to influence Ridley-Thomas regarding the TeleHealth contract, but she never admitted anything regarding the probation-related contacts and Sebastian’s scholarship and job. Legal experts say that made her a much-too risky witness for both prosecutors and defense attorneys.
Jury forewoman identifies key email
Ridley-Thomas’ attorneys had argued he was the victim of a sloppy investigation and a rush to judgment, and they secured an unusual jury instruction that highlighted shifting testimony from Adkins, the lead FBI agent, regarding whether he reviewed all or some of the 400,000 documents.
The instruction said the jury could consider the testimony when assessing Adkins’ credibility, but jury forewoman Kirsi Kilpelainen, a 36-year-old marketing specialist from San Luis Obispo, said the emails at the center of Adkins’ investigation were not in dispute.
“We didn’t have to take his word for it because we could look at it,” Kilpelainen told reporters in the hallway after the verdict was announced.
The key evidence, Kilpelainen said, was an email Ridley-Thomas wrote Flynn on May 3, 2018, at 10:20 p.m. that told her to “act with dispatch” regarding the $100,000 check he’d sent her from his campaign account because he wanted the funding for a directorship for Sebastian’s policy initiative to be in place by the 15th.
The next day, Flynn directed her employees to send the money to United Way. Jurors heard from USC employee Adriana Gonzalez about Flynn’s interest in the transaction and Gonzalez’s own efforts to facilitate it, including that she’d told her she was going to get in trouble in the transaction didn’t go through.
The transaction is what led to Flynn’s undoing: Jurors also heard from USC employee Michele Clark, who described how she discovered a suspicious exchange about the $100,000 between Flynn and Ridley-Thomas while reviewing emails to confirm the proper spelling of United Way. She contacted Professor John Clapp, who was the School of Social Work’s vice dean, and he initiated an internal USC investigation that led to a criminal referral to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Prosecutors also repeatedly drew the jury’s attention to an email regarding Sebastian’s scholarship in which Flynn wrote,“ full scholarship for our funds,” referring to the now-mayor of Los Angeles.
Ridley-Thomas’ lawyer Daralyn Durie, a partner with Morrison Foerster LLP, argued Flynn mistyped and actually meant “from our funds,” but Kilpelainen told reporters after the verdict, “I don’t believe anybody said it was a typo” during deliberations.
“Karen Bass was a big discussion, but not it being a typo,” she said. She said jurors agreed Sebastian wasn’t the only person to receive “VIP treatment,” and some believed that Flynn’s arrangement with Ridley-Thomas regarding it “might have been business as usual.”
‘Obviously. We said he was guilty.’
Durie said in her closing argument that the case was about whether Ridley-Thomas “sold his vote” to Flynn in exchange for the help regarding Sebastian, but Kilpelainen told reporters, “I honestly don’t know what that means.”
“From the very time they mentioned that I thought, ‘You shouldn’t use that as an argument because I don’t understand that,’” Kilpelainen said. She agreed with prosecutors’ argument that the issue is not about changing his vote - she said he doesn’t believe Ridley-Thomas changed his vote on either of the three contracts - it’s about whether he sought to benefit personally from his policy positions.
Asked if they believed Ridley-Thomas “had his hand out,” she replied, “Obviously. We said he was guilty.”
Jurors didn’t decide on any charges until Thursday morning, Kilpelainen said.
The forewoman’s comments indicated prosecutors were correct when they told Judge Fischer on Tuesday that jurors appeared to be confused by the instructions. They said based on their questions, jurors appeared to believe they needed to find an additional unlawful act regarding bribery other than bribery in itself. Indeed, Kilpelainen told reporters that jurors believed Ridley-Thomas acted dishonestly and corruptly, but they didn’t see an illegal act with the bribery scheme until they determined he was guilty of wire fraud.
Kilpelainen said jurors believed the testimony of former California Fair Political Practices Commission chair Ann Ravel, the defense expert witness on campaign finance, that the transactions involving the $100,000 weren’t illegal.
Jurors requested a read back of her testimony during deliberations on Monday, and Kilpelainen said her testimony about the legality of the transactions “had us stuck for so many days.” They ultimately determined the wire fraud counts constituted the illegal act for the bribery charge.
That matches the concerns voiced Tuesday by Dotson, the lead counsel and the chief of the U.S. Attorney’s public corruption and civil rights unit, about the instructions mistakenly placing an additional burden of proof on the bribery count. Judge Fischer mulled striking the instruction altogether, but she didn’t end up doing so.
Kilpelanien said the answers to the jury’s questions that referred them back to the instructions were unhelpful. They also frustrated jurors who wondered if the court thought they weren’t reading the instructions, when in fact they were reading them repeatedly, taking turns doing so out loud, and taking their job very seriously, she said.
Thank you for reading my trial coverage. I will be continuing to follow all development sin this case, including Flynn’s sentencings, currently scheduled for June 26. I also plan to write an analysis of the possible prison sentence Ridley-Thomas faces under U.S. Sentencing Commission guidelines. One way to support my independent legal affairs journalism is to become a paid subscriber, or to donate to $firstname.lastname@example.org through Venmo, CashApp or Zelle.
Legal Affairs and Trials with Meghann Cuniff is a reader-supported publication. To further support my independent coverage of major legal affairs issues in and around Los Angeles, become a paid subscriber.
March 30: Jury asks about final 15 counts of Mark Ridley-Thomas' 19-count USC bribery indictment
March 29: 'Does unlawful mean illegal?' Jurors in city councilman's USC bribery trial mull instructions
March 28: Why didn't ex-USC Dean Marilyn Flynn testify in Los Angeles politico Mark Ridley-Thomas' trial?
Rebuttal: March 26: Jury hears prosecutor's final account of Mark Ridley-Thomas' evolving USC bribery scheme
Closing arguments: March 23: Defense says USC’s 'VIP' treatment made scholarship for Mark Ridley-Thomas' son 'business as usual'
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
Legal Affairs and Trials with Meghann Cuniff is a reader-supported publication. To further support my work, become a paid subscriber.