Witness LA: Deconstructing The Conviction Of Mark Ridley-Thomas: Part 1

Witness LA: Deconstructing The Conviction Of Mark Ridley-Thomas: Part 1
Crowd shot from “An Evening of Compassion and a Cry for Justice” on Friday, June 23, 2023.

June 26, 2023 | Written by Celeste Fremon

On Monday morning, June 26, Mark Ridley-Thomas and his team of defense attorneys will come before U.S. District Court Judge Dale S. Fischer in order that his attorneys may argue two motions on behalf of their client.

The first of the two motions, known as a Rule 33 motion, requests a new trial.

The second motion, a Rule 29 motion, argues among other things, that the government “presented no evidence” of any illegal actions that Ridley-Thomas “actually took.”

It was just under three months ago that Judge Fischer read the jury verdict in the corruption and bribery case against the former state senator, former assemblyman, former member of the board of supervisors, and twice-city council member.

The 12-person federal jury found Ridley-Thomas to be guilty of seven of the 19 counts with which he had been charged by the U.S. Governmenton October 13, 2021.

According to the jury foreperson, Kirsi Kilpelainen — a 36-year-old marketing specialist from San Luis Obispo who came out to talk to a cluster of reporters and other trial watchers post-verdict (WitnessLA included) — she and her fellow jurors did not manage to get to a guilty verdict on any of the charges until that morning, when they concluded they had finally discovered what they believed to be the path to conviction.

In the 19-count indictment, the government alleged a bribery and corruption scheme in which Ridley-Thomas — then a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors — steered a series of lucrative county contracts and, in one case, a potentially multi-million dollar contract amendment, to USC’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

According to the feds, MRT — as Ridley-Thomas is often known for short — did so at the request of Marilyn Flynn, the School of Social Work’s long-time dean, who was reportedly worried about the cash flow of the school that she had overseen since 1997.

In the three-week trial, the government’s prosecutors described how, in return for the reported high-ticket county contracts, Dean Flynn did two major favors of her own for the well-known policymaker. First of all, she helped one of Mark Ridley-Thomas’s twin sons, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, to get a scholarship for a master’s degree in social work at USC. At the same time, the younger Ridley-Thomas applied for a part-time job as a non-tenured adjunct professor at the Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and also the Price School of Public Policy, with which Flynn assisted.

Sebastian Ridley-Thomas was arguably not an illogical choice for such a position. At the time he initially talked to Dean Flynn and USC about his hope of going back to school for an advanced degree while teaching part-time, it was mid-May of 2017, and he was one of the youngest members of the California state legislature, having been elected at 26 to represent the state’s 54th assembly district in a special election in 2013.

He was re-elected in 2014, and again in 2016. During the years in between, he was on prestigious legislative committees, and among his accomplishments were some youth-related bills, such as AB 1299, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2016, which improved the delivery of mental health services to youth in foster care. All of this made him a unique representative of a new generation of African American state lawmakers.

Furthermore, as is true with a long list of private universities, hiring people who are public figures of one kind or another as non-tenure track professors of some sort, was not an unusual policy at USC.

Former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was given a professorship at the USC Price School of Public Policy. As were General David Petraeus and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The list of professorships for public figures goes on from there.

As for the scholarship, Mayor Karen Bass received a deal that was identical to that of Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, including the part-time professorship, which Dean Flynn also facilitated.

“You don’t have to like it,” defense attorney Daralyn Durie told the jury during closing arguments. But, at private universities like USC, this is how things are routinely done.

Ultimately, the jury appeared to agree with the defense’s view.

Yet, according to the prosecution, the application for a scholarship and the part-time adjunct professorship was one of two quid pro quo favors Flynn performed that allegedly benefited Mark Ridley-Thomas and his son.

The $100,000 check

The second alleged favor occurred in the spring of 2018, after the younger Ridley- Thomas had resigned from the state legislature, was attending USC, and had started a non-profit organization in order to do polling and other research in Black voter trends, which was reportedly also part of his project for his master’s degree.

Like many non-profit entities, however, SRT’s new organization was not itself a 501(c)(3).

Acquiring non-profit status isn’t difficult, but it takes a while. As a consequence, many would-be non-profits instead go with what is known as a “fiscal sponsor,” which umbrellas down its own non-profit status to the smaller organization, while also offering various administrative services.  The smaller organization, in turn, pays for these services with a fixed percentage of the funds the smaller entity raises.

In order to help the new non-profit get started, MRT donated $100,000 from one of his campaign funds, known as the Mark Ridley-Thomas Committee for a Better L.A.

The fiscal sponsor for Sebastian Ridley-Thomas’s newly formed organization was United Ways of California.

But, he did so using a two-step route. MRT’s Committee for a Better LA donated $100,000 to USC’s School of Social Work. And Dean Flynn, in turn, used the same funds to make a donation to United Ways, with the designation that the donation was to be used for the new non-profit under the United Ways tent.

Sebastian Ridley-Thomas was not, at the time, taking a salary from the non-profit. The funds would be used to hire a staff member who was to work with SRT with the polling and research.

To counter the government’s ongoing contention that the donation from MRT’s campaign fund was illegal, the defense brought in elections law expert Ann Ravel of Berkeley Law School, who was nominated to the Federal Election Commission in 2013 by President Barack Obama, where she became the commission’s chair. Previously, Ravel served as Chair of the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), where she was appointed by Governor Edmund G. Brown. And the list goes on from there.

When deliberating, in one of their many notes to the judge, the jury panel asked for a readback of Ravel’s testimony.

Jury foreperson, Kirsi Kilpelainen told reporters that she and her fellow jurors believed Ravel.

We thought the $100,000 donation was legal, she said.

At the same time, Kilpelainen said, an email Ridley-Thomas sent to Flynn urging the dean to “act with dispatch” in sending the check so the employee could be hired, was what led them to a guilty verdict.

(We’ll have more on the jury’s logic later in this series.)

Charges true or false

It is a rule of thumb that when the feds file criminal charges against someone or a group of someones, they don’t file unless they’ve rigorously nailed the facts of the case, and are also dead bang positive they can convict the defendant.

Yet, even more than building winning cases, the primary mandate for a prosecutor — federal, state, or county — is to seek justice.

For example, when the U.S. Attorney’s Office of California’s Central District (which covers seven California counties) indicted former LA County undersheriff Paul Tanaka, the feds had done their homework in-depth and many times over to make sure the indictment was warranted. A solid conviction resulted.

And so it was when the same federal prosecutors, backed by the same small group of extremely diligent FBI agents, charged and convicted former Sheriff Lee Baca. A solid conviction resulted, even though it took two trials to do it.

[You can find WLA’s coverage of the Lee Baca and Paul Tanaka trials here and here.]

Yet, in another Central District case that WitnessLA covered extensively more than a decade ago, it was quite a different matter.

This was the 2010 case brought against Alex Sanchez, the executive director of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit, Homies Unidos.

At the time he was indicted, government prosecutors believed that Sanchez, a former Mara Salvatrucha gang member turned internationally respected violence prevention expert, had never really reformed, that instead, he was a murderous gangster who had ordered a long-distance hit against an “enemy” in El Salvador.

When the feds filed their charges against Sanchez, they clearly thought they had the right man. But, they were in a rush to indict (for reasons too long to detail here) and they didn’t really have the facts. So, they arranged the few puzzle pieces they had into a false narrative, which one of the government’s primary sources falsely told them was true.

Had the late former state senator and justice reformer, Tom Hayden, and Los Angeles patron saint, Father Greg Boyle, plus a lineup of other supporters, not done everything they could to uncover the wall-to-wall untruths of the feds case, Alex Sanchez would have gone to prison for the rest of his life.

(The prosecution kindly took the death penalty off the table.)

Instead, three-and-a-half years after Sanchez was indicted, the government dropped the charges against him.

This brings us back to the government’s case against Ridley-Thomas, the conviction at the end of March, the motions that will be presented to Judge Fischer on Monday, and the question of where justice lies in this ongoing case.

Contracts and questions

When Mark Ridley-Thomas was first indicted back in the fall of 2021, many of those whom we spoke with who knew MRT well, or had worked with him, or lived in districts he served were stunned by the charges.

And yet for other Los Angeles residents, it seemed unrealistic to believe that federal prosecutors would bring nineteen counts worth of charges without having uncovered illegal activity. That perspective was helped by the fact that Ridley-Thomas was the third L.A. City Council person in a row to be charged with corrupt behavior, following the cases brought against city council members Mitch Englander and José Huizar.

Yet, as the weeks and months passed after the MRT indictment, challenges to the specifics of the government’s allegations began to surface. Sources who worked for members of the LA County Supervisors (other than Ridley-Thomas), told WitnessLA privately that they had questions about the charges.

As far as anyone could see, one veteran board staff member told us, there were no contracts between the county and the School of Social Work that fit the details and the time frame of the government’s allegations.

Yes, there were contracts, but they already existed between the county and the state’s largest university. They didn’t fit into the quid-pro-quo framework.

Then the trial arrived. Mark Ridley-Thomas was convicted. Additional sources began to reach out to us.

And the facts of the narrative began to change.

More in Part 2. So stay tuned.

This article was originally posted to Witness LA