Written by Celeste Fremon
On Monday morning, August 28, U.S. District Court Judge Dale S. Fischer sentenced Mark Ridley-Thomas to 42 months in federal prison, and three additional years of supervised release. Fischer also ordered Ridley-Thomas to pay a $30,000 fine.
He is to self-surrender to federal marshals on November 13, 2023.
Ridley-Thomas and his attorneys have 14 days from today to appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. If the 9th agrees to hear the appeal, MRT’s attorneys will then need to ask the judge if he can stay out of federal custody during the course of his next legal journey.
It will be up to Judge Fischer’s discretion whether or not he remains at home .
We’ll have a separate story on the sentencing itself, and what it points beyond itself to say. Now back to the pre-sentencing story, a number of parts of which turned out to be unexpectedly relevant to Judge Fischer’s explanation of how she arrived at this morning’s decision to send MRT to prison for 42 months
Waiting for sentencing
The sentencing of Ridley-Thomas was originally set to take place on Monday, August, 21. But by Friday, August 18, as residents of Los Angeles County were nervously eyeing a the approach of a hurricane (or tropical storm or whatever it turned out to be), after a bit of back-and-forth, Judge Fischer appeared to conclude that the storm held the high card, and announced a week’s postponement.
The sentencing hearing will take place at 10 a.m., on Monday, August 28, at the downtown Los Angeles federal court building at 350 West 1st Street, Courtroom 7D.
The judge will began hearing cases at 8:30 a.m., so most of the crowd of Ridley-Thomas supporters who planned on attending were in their seats well before Judge Fischer entered her courtroom.
At Monday’s hearing, federal prosecutors will try to convince Judge Fischer that Ridley-Thomas should be sentenced to a 72-month term of incarceration—in other words, six years in a federal prison.
The government will also ask for three years of supervised release after he gets out of prison, plus a fine of $30,000.
The defense, in contrast, will explain why they believe that the county’s long-time and much revered former state senator, former assemblyman, former member of the board of supervisors, and twice-city council member, should not be sentenced to prison at all.
As readers know from previous chapters of this series, on March 30, 2023, a 12-person federal jury found Ridley-Thomas to be guilty of seven of a total of 19 counts with which he was charged by the U.S. Government on October 13, 2021.
(For those who have not read the earlier chapters, you can find them here.)
According to the case argued by the government’s team of prosecutors, MRT—as Ridley-Thomas is frequently known—used his considerable political power as a member of the LA County Board of Supervisors (which was his elected position during the period covered by the indictment), to create a quid pro quo arrangement in order to “seek and accept bribes and kickbacks” from Marilyn Flynn, then the longtime dean of the University of Southern California’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.
In particular, according to the government’s original 35-page indictment, Ridley-Thomas performed at least three critically important favors for Flynn.
During the period that pertains to the government’s case, Marilyn Flynn was in her late 70s and the school she had led since 1997, however bright its reputation, was reportedly in need of a healthier cash flow if Flynn was to be seen by university officials as still pulling her weight.
“She needed to give the impression that she still knew the right people, and still had real influence,” said one WLA’s sources who worked with Flynn in the past.
Whatever the finer details of her motivation, the bottom line was that Flynn was in search of additional outside income for USC’s School of Social Work and, according to the prosecution, she believed MRT could help her by steering lucrative contracts her way.
In order to make this contract-steering happen, federal attorneys told the jury, Ridley-Thomas exerted pressure on his fellow board members and other county officials, to get them to go along with this corrupt arrangement.
In return, Flynn allegedly performed favors for the well-known policymaker, which included helping 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.
The second alleged favor by Flynn for Ridley-Thomas had to do with a $100,000 check from one of MRT’s campaign funds, known as the Mark Ridley-Thomas Committee for a Better L.A.
We’ll have more about the $100,000, its reason for being, and its peregrinations in a future chapter.
But for now, let’s return to the prosecution’s description of Ridley-Thomas’s “favors” for Marilyn Flynn.
As we mentioned Part 1 of this series, in the weeks and months after MRT was indicted in the fall of 2021, we found that contradictions to the specifics of the government’s allegations began to surface.
One veteran board staff member told us a few weeks after the indictment had been announced, that he/she and other board staff colleagues could thus far find 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, said the source, but they already existed between the county and USC. They didn’t fit into the quid pro quo framework.
Nevertheless, a nineteen-count, 35-page indictment suggested that the government’s prosecutors must have at least most of their facts firmly nailed.
Going to court
At the time the trial began jury selection in early March, WitnessLA was deeply involved in reporting on the catastrophic conditions in the county’s increasingly dangerous youth halls. As a consequence, we didn’t attend Ridley-Thomas’s trial until it was nearing its conclusion.
Yet, when we did finally find ourselves jammed into Judge Fischer’s overcrowded courtroom, large chunks of what we heard in the government’s closing arguments seemed to us to have some factual cracks
For example, the prosecutors told the jury that Ridley-Thomas performed a string of important contract-producing favors for Dean Flynn. The favors came in the form of the passage of three motions that were before the board of supervisors.
Yet, when we looked into the matter further, we found that two of the three motions did not result in any kind of contractual arrangement with USC, nor did they result in any income for the school of social work.
The third and most important of the three alleged contracts, however, wasn’t a new deal the county was making with the School of Social Work. Rather it was a renewal of an existing contract that came into being on March 1, 2016—well before the 2017-2018 time period that pertains to the case against Ridley-Thomas.
It is this contract that is a linchpin of the government’s case.
The matter of Telehealth
What the prosecution and the defense refer to as the Telehealth contract pertains to a 2016 contract for what was called USC Telehealth services. Through this contract, the school of social work had been providing remote access therapy to children and young people known as transition age youth (TAY) who had been through trauma, and were struggling with anxiety and depression.
Now, post-COVID, such remote therapy programs are commonplace. But in LA County, the idea for the original Telehealth partnership and contract came about in response to a recommendation from the report generated by LA County’s 2013-2014 Blue Ribbon Commission on child welfare.
The recommendation was for the county to find strategies to better serve children and young people who “have come to the attention of the child welfare system,” and who might benefit through a program for mental health services online, in which the kids could talk to a counselor from their homes, or foster homes, if they were given access to an iPad or equivalent.
Reforming the county’s child welfare system was something with which Ridley-Thomas had been deeply involved, as WitnessLA reported at the time.
Since we were tracking the issue, we also reported that USC’s Marilyn Flynn was one of Ridley-Thomas’s two appointees to the 10-member 2013 Blue Ribbon Commission. At the time, MRT’s two selections, namely Flynn and former LA County Child Welfare director, David Sanders, were hailed as ideal choices.
In any case, back in early March of 2016, Ridley-Thomas and his fellow board members thought the Telehealth concept to be a worthwhile experiment. Thus, on March 1, 2016, MRT and the rest of the board unanimously approved an 18-month single source contract with USC’s already existing Telehealth program. The budget was set at $547,500.
The project was an experiment, thus the county committed to it in steps. With this in mind, the original March 1, 2016, contract (which you can read here) had embedded in it an option to renew for an additional year, at the discretion of the then acting head of the LA County Department of Mental Health, with the approval of the board.
The 2016 contract also specified that, if the contract was renewed for an extra year, there could be no extra dollars added for the additional year’s extension.
By 2018, the 2016 contract was running out, so on July 31, 2018, the board approvedan extension of the original Telehealth contract, but as the original contract had made clear, there would be no additional cash added with the renewal.
At Marilyn Flynn’s suggestion there were some minor amendments to round 2 of the contract. One of the amendments was to increase the reimbursement rate for the graduate student practitioners who worked remotely with the kids to $120 per session.
However, the dollar total of the renewed contract brought USC no extra cash, in that contract’s budget was still not to exceed $530,323, for the life of the contract.
($530,323, was the amount that was left of the initial $547,500.)
In other words, when the supervisors voted to authorize the renewal (which you can read here), they approved no extra cash over the bottom line amount designated in the 2016 contract.
Despite these easily researchable numbers, the prosecution continued to tell the jury that the board was approving a renewal of the original 2016 “sole source” USC Telehealth contract that had “more lucrative terms for the Social Work School,” which could mean “millions” for USC, and which required that Ridley-Thomas “influence key county decision makers.”
According to the sources we spoke with, along with the testimony at Ridley-Thomas’s trial by former board member Sheila Kuehl, and present board member, Janice Hahn, the members of board did not need influencing.
Sherin, who left his post as leader of the nation’s largest mental health department in April of last year “after a personal health scare,” was originally on the prosecution’s witness list.
Presumably, letting Sherin tell the jury whether or not he was pushed by MRT on the Telehealth issue, would have helped settle the issue.
But, the prosecution never called Dr. Sherin during the main part of their case. Later in the trial, they tried belatedly to call Sherin, but Judge Fischer said they’d missed their chance, although Sherin had reportedly come to court with his lawyer expecting to testify.
Nevertheless, as the LA Times wrote, that the government’s prosecutors continued to contend that, “beginning in 2017 — not long after Sherin started his tenure as head of the department — Ridley-Thomas pressured him to perform official acts involving a lucrative contract for a Department of Mental Health telehealth clinic with USC.”
This is a weird contention due to the fact that the original Telehealth contract was approved on March 1, 2016, seven and a half months before Sherin was sworn in as Director of Mental Health at the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration on Friday, Oct 21, 2016 at noon.
When supervisors voted on the renewal of the contract, Sherin had been on the job for more than 20 months, and presumably could stand up to badgering, should there have been a need for badgering, and had MRT wished to badger.
As for the other two contracts that were, according to the prosecution, part of Ridley-Thomas’s quid pro quo arrangement with former dean Marilyn Flynn, here’s a summary:
The Probation reentry hub
The first of the two other purported contractual favors allegedly engineered by Ridley-Thomas was the unanimous passage of a motion by the board of supervisors on August 1, 2017. This motion, however, did not pertain to a contract, but rather was what is known as a “report back,” which asks a list of appropriate officials to look into whether or not the county should consider some future initiative.
In this case, the report back motion (which you can read here) pertained to the planned creation of a “Probation reentry hub,” a proposed new model program that would help adults in LA County who were coming out of prison, or graduating from probation, to successfully restart their lives.
The reentry hub was an important project that had been in the works since early 2016 (or arguably earlier) and had the potential of affecting a great many lives.
Ridley-Thomas was the lead author on the motion, with then board member Sheila Keuhl as the co-author.
To date, the reentry hub exists, is thriving, and involves a lengthy list of community organizations and stakeholders.
USC is not one of them.
In other words, there was no contract. This favor brought the USC School of Social Work zero contracts, and zero income, a fact that was easily researched.
The second of the three favors the prosecution described as a part of the alleged corrupt arrangement between MRT and Marilyn Flynn was in the form of an October 17, 2017, motion authored by Supervisor Janice Hahn, and co-authored by Ridley-Thomas.
Yet, again, contrary to what the prosecution told the jury, the motion (which you can read for yourself here) did not benefit USC at all.
Instead the motion was another “report back.” In this case, the potential new initiative was called “Probation University” a possible new training program for those who work at LA County Probation’s various facilities and field offices.
The County CEO, the Chief of Probation, and others were told to check into best practices for such an endeavor, and come back to the board with a report regarding whether or not the county should consider it. If so, county officials should try to ID funding streams.
Although the motion passed easily, contrary to what the government said, it was not intended to result in a contract. It did, however, result in a report that, like many of the board’s routine reports back, came to nothing.
Furthermore, the motion did not mention USC, but talked about involving “a consortium of universities,” of which USC’s School of Social Work would have likely been one—had Probation University come into being.
But it didn’t come into being. And still hasn’t.
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