Why didn't ex-USC Dean Marilyn Flynn testify in Los Angeles politico Mark Ridley-Thomas' trial?
Legal experts say the dean emeritus' testimony in the conspiracy case could have been risky for prosecutors, who have a trove of emails they say speak for themselves.
The most common questions I hear about Mark Ridley-Thomas’ trial concern the courtroom absence of his alleged co-conspirator, Marilyn Louise Flynn.
Why isn’t Flynn testifying? And why can’t jurors be told she was criminally charged alongside Ridley-Thomas?
The 83-year-old dean emeritus of the University of Southern California School of Social Work pleaded guilty last September to a felony bribery charge. She admits in her plea agreement that she “acted corruptly, this is, intending to influence or reward Ridley-Thomas” related to Los Angeles County business valued at $5,000 or more.
But her agreement does not require her to cooperate with prosecutors, and lawyers experienced with federal criminal prosecutions say it isn’t surprising she wasn’t called to testify.
“It’s certainly possible Flynn entered her guilty plea with a reluctant heart and because of that, prosecutors knew she would not put the screws to Ridley-Thomas on the stand,” said Scott Tenley, a partner at Zweiback, Fiset & Zalduendo LLP and a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Central District of California.
“She could be a net positive witness for the defense, and undermine the inferences that could be drawn from the email messages, which are damning on their own,” Tenley continued. “As lawyers are fond of saying, the document speaks for itself.”
Daniel Ahn, a Reed Smith LLP partner and former Central District prosecutor, said Flynn’s testimony would put her credibility at issue, so her conviction would be introduced to the jury if she took the stand. But without Flynn’s testimony, her guilty plea can’t be introduced without violating legal restrictions on hearsay testimony, because she’s the only witness who can directly testify that she pleaded guilty.
Another consideration: Flynn’s guilty plea didn’t cover the broad conspiracy for which prosecutors are hoping jurors convict Ridley-Thomas; it only covered the attempt to influence. Prosecutors dismissed Flynn’s 18 other felony counts, including conspiracy, after she pleaded guilty last September to the bribery charge.
Had she testified in Ridley-Thomas’ trial, the best prosecutors could have done is elicit testimony about her admitting part of the case but not all of it. Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers faced the same situation: If they called Flynn as a defense witness, they could elicit testimony in which she denies a conspiracy but can’t deny attempting to influence Ridley-Thomas.
Flynn is represented by one of Los Angeles’ top law firms: Hueston Hennigan LLP. Co-founder Brian Hennigan declined to get into the details of Flynn’s case when I spoke with him on Monday, but he said Flynn “did enter a guilty plea, and she also provided a factual basis for the plea in open court which was made available to the prosecution and the court.”
“She stands by the statements in her guilty plea,” Hennigan said.
The statements concern only the August 2018 contract amendment that lucratively looped her school into Los Angeles County’s TeleHealth counseling program, and her funneling of the $100,000 payment for Ridley-Thomas’ son Sebastian’s policy initiative. She never admitted anything regarding Sebastian’s USC scholarship and professorship or the Los Angeles County contracts regarding the probation department partnership and the reentry center near the USC campus, which are central to prosecutors’ case against Ridley-Thomas.
Tenley said a non-witness co-conspirator’s indictment may be offered by prosecutors in rebuttal under certain circumstances, such as if the defense suggested no one else had been charged. “But those circumstances will be few and far between,” Tenley said.
The other Los Angeles politics-related corruption case being prosecuted by the Central District’s U.S. Attorney’s Office has a key cooperation plea agreement. It’s with George Esparza, former Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar’s longtime assistant, and it requires he “cooperate fully” while specifying he’s to answer truthfully all questions asked, including “at any trial or other court proceeding.”
Esparza was a star witness in the two trials last year against real estate developer Dae Yong Lee and is 940 Hill LLC and billionaire real estate developer Wei Haung’s Shen Zhen New World I LLC, and he took the stand last month in retired Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Raymond Chan’s trial, which is currently on hold. Each time, he’s been questioned in front of jurors about his cooperation plea agreement and his hope for a reduced sentence.
In Ridley-Thomas’ trial, prosecutors told Judge Fischer that his lawyers’ suggestion of a conspiracy by USC employees against Ridley-Thomas meant they should be permitted to tell the jury about Flynn’s indictment. But the judge disagreed, so the best prosecutors could do was emphasize that Flynn had been “ousted” from her job because that fact had come out in testimony.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsey Greer Dotson did so in her March 23 closing argument, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Morse mentioned it again the next day in his rebuttal.
Morse also spoke to what Tenley said about “the document speaks for itself,” telling the jury: “As Marilyn Flynn often does, she removes all doubt with her emails.”
Flynn is scheduled to be sentenced on June 26. Prosecutors agreed to recommend she pay a fine of at least $100,000, with no prison time.
Judge Fischer will have final say, but the judge has indicated she won’t be departing from the recommendation: She allowed Flynn to vacation in Italy last year, and she’s authorized her to travel to Botswana and Zimbabwe in May for a 16-day trip sponsored by the Phoenix Zoo.
Jury requests testimony read back, asks another question
Monday was the jury’s first full 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. deliberation day after deliberating from about 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Friday.
Read back: Jurors requested to hear defense expert witness Ann Ravel’s testimony read aloud. A court reporter read back the testimony in about 45 minutes. Ravel is a former chair of the California Fair Political Practices Commission and a former appointee to the Federal Election Commission. She was declared an expert on campaign finance in trial, and she testified that Ridley-Thomas’ $100,000 donation to the USC School of Social Work was legal.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Rybarczyk cross-examined her about what she didn’t include in her assessment, including correspondence between Flynn and Ridley-Thomas masking their true intent for the money to end up with Sebastian’s new policy initiative through United Way.
Ravel’s testimony included this direct quote: “It ultimately is transparent because somebody came to know about it.”
Question #2: About 2 p.m., everyone went into Judge Fischer’s courtroom for another question from the jury. On Friday, they referenced an instruction and asked, “Does a thing of value have to be tangible or can it be an action, favor or information?”
On Monday, they asked whether they must find proven lines 14 through 17 of another instruction, as well as all the elements in the definition of corruptly, or if they only needed to find the three lines. Fischer agreed with Ridley-Thomas’ attorneys’ suggested answer regarding the broader requirement. Without a copy of the instructions, it was difficult to follow, so we reporters are trying to get a copy of the instructions. Hopefully one gets filed right this instance.
The jury left at 2:30 p.m. and returns at 8 a.m. on Tuesday.
I appeared on Spectrum News 1 SoCal early Monday to discuss the trial. Here’s the full video.
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
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