LA Times: Ex-L.A. Councilman Ridley-Thomas seeks new trial after conviction
BY MATT HAMILTON - STAFF WRITER
MAY 3, 2023 7:57 PM PT
Former Los Angeles City Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas, convicted on bribery and fraud charges, has asked a federal judge to discard the jury’s guilty verdicts and grant him a new trial in the high-profile corruption case.
Lawyers for Ridley-Thomas argued in a motion filed this week that prosecutorial misconduct, misstatements of the law, and inaccurate and “improper testimony” by the lead FBI agent on the case all deprived the longtime politician of a fair trial.
The motion comes more than a month after a jury found Ridley-Thomas, 68, guilty of four counts of honest services wire fraud and one count each of bribery, conspiracy and honest services mail fraud. The case stemmed from his time as a member of L.A. County’s powerful Board of Supervisors and involved his support of a contract with USC’s School of Social Work for TeleHealth, a virtual mental health treatment program run by the university.
In their verdict, jurors decided that Ridley-Thomas corruptly routed $100,000 from his political campaign fund through USC, then instructed the university to send the money to United Ways of California, where the funds would go toward his son’s new nonprofit.
Jurors acquitted Ridley-Thomas of 12 other fraud charges related to a scholarship and job his son received from USC around the time when the politician was voting on other matters sought by the university.
The split verdict instantly ended Ridley-Thomas term as an L.A. City Council member and stunned L.A.’s political class, prompting public statements of grief from Mayor Karen Bass and prominent allies.
This week’s court filings offer the first window into Ridley-Thomas’ attempt to avoid prison and restore his political career.
In the motion for a new trial, his lawyers contend that “false statements” by the lead FBI agent about the TeleHealth contract likely tainted the jury’s deliberations.
A pivotal figure in the TeleHealth contract was Dr. Jonathan Sherin, former director of the county’s mental health program. At trial, when a prosecutor asked whether Sherin had offered bogus reasons for extending the TeleHealth contract with USC, Special Agent Brian Adkins agreed, explaining that this view was “based on my interview with Dr. Sherin.”
“This is false,” Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers wrote in their filing this week, explaining that the FBI agent’s notes of his interview with Sherin and a recording of the interview contain no statements or suggestions that the reasons for extending the contract were disingenuous.
At trial, Adkins later was asked if he saw “any evidence that Mark Ridley-Thomas or his staff threatened to cancel or rescind any contract.” The agent replied that this came up “during interviews.”
Defense lawyers questioned the basis for Adkins’ answer. According to Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers, prosecutors could only point to a witness who said the lawmaker had the general power to cancel contracts, not that he threatened to do so in this case.
“Each of these false statements ‘polluted’ the jury’s deliberations,” Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers wrote. “This is particularly so where the false statements came from the government’s mouthpiece.”
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in L.A. declined to comment on the filing, noting that prosecutors have until May 22 to formally reply. A hearing on the motion is scheduled for June 26. Marilyn Flynn, the former dean of USC’s social work program who pleaded guilty to bribery, is scheduled to be sentenced the same day.
A second filing this week goes beyond the request for a new trial and seeks an outright acquittal, arguing that prosecutors failed to provide sufficient evidence for each element of the crimes on which Ridley-Thomas was convicted. That motion walks through key evidence in the case and highlights areas where the defense claims the required bar wasn’t cleared.
For example, defense attorneys say that there is no evidence of an “official act” that Ridley-Thomas did in connection with the TeleHealth amendment, since the contract was on the consent calendar, but no witness clearly testified to how it was voted on, and an email to a deputy about the contract “is insufficient to constitute an official act.”
Both motions are considered legal long shots. In the college admissions case, a federal judge in Boston last year granted a new trial to a former USC water polo coach, finding that prosecutors erred in their argument.
In their motion for a new trial, lawyers for Ridley-Thomas also accused the government of “vouching,” or bolstering witness statements or evidence with the “prestige of the government,” and improperly inserting their opinions.
The motion identified at least eight remarks during closing arguments in which defense attorneys claim that prosecutors revealed their personal opinions — by saying “nonsense” or “it is so crystal clear” or “there is no doubt.”
The defense lawyers also took issue with Adkins’ description of Ridley-Thomas’ dealings with Flynn, the former dean: “At some point in the summer of 2017, that relationship appeared to turn corrupt,” the FBI agent testified.
Lawyers argued that the last four words — appeared to turn corrupt — went beyond an FBI agent describing his investigation and instead showed Adkins improperly injecting his opinion before the jury.
“He impermissibly opined both on the law and on Dr. Ridley-Thomas’s guilt, and he did so at the prompting of the government,” lawyers wrote.
Although U.S. District Judge Dale Fischer issued a jury instruction noting an instance of Adkins’ shifting testimony, the judge did not issue a separate instruction on the alleged improper vouching, nor did Fischer strike it from the trial transcript.
In their motion, defense lawyers say the judge erred by not issuing a “curative instruction” or striking the testimony, which “unfairly prejudiced Dr. Ridley-Thomas.”