Los Angeles Magazine: The United States vs. Mark Ridley-Thomas Trial Verdict Hinges on Reasonable Doubt
Cityside Column: The longtime politician and suspended City Councilman’s army of support swells as the case heads to the jury
By Jon Regardie | March 24, 2023
That’s not a joke with a punchline. Rather, it’s a legitimate ask. The other day I wrote that an army of supporters had flocked to the courtroom where suspended City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas is on trial for bribery, conspiracy and other charges. I detailed how more than 30 people had filled the blonde wooden benches.
Closing arguments began Thursday morning, and it seemed like each of those supporters had walked into one of those cartoon machines that spits out an additional two people. The crew of friends, former employees, business associates and community members had greatly expanded; academic, activist and author Dr. Cornel West sat in the front row, and City Councilman Curren Price was nearby. I would say that the packed benches felt like a can of sardines, but those have more room and as I previously mentioned, the jury can’t miss the swell of people showing up to back the three-decade political veteran. Actually, the jury is not getting the whole picture—operators of the federal courthouse in downtown L.A. had to open a second room on the seventh floor so that the overflow crowd could watch on video. Standing room only was not an option.
It wasn’t only Ridley-Thomas supporters in the room. A portion of the benches was filled by other staffers from the U.S. Department of Justice, which is prosecuting the case. There was also a clutch of FBI agents, which several Ridley-Thomas backers took great glee in pointing out, perhaps because they all looked exactly like you expect FBI agents to look: trim people with dark suits, tight haircuts and serious expressions.
Ridley-Thomas faces 19 criminal counts. Authorities allege that, while a member of the County Board of Supervisors, he conspired with then-USC School of Social Work Dean Marilyn Flynn on a scheme to admit his son—former state Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas—to a graduate school program and provide him with a scholarship and paid teaching position. In return, prosecutors assert, Ridley-Thomas agreed to direct hefty county contracts to the school.
Sebastian Ridley-Thomas cited serious health reasons when he stepped down from the legislature in late 2017. Prosecutors allege that he actually gave up the gig because of a burgeoning #MeToo investigation and that his father was looking to find him a soft landing. As part of that aim, they allege the supervisor illegally funneled $100,000 from a campaign fund to a nonprofit that Sebastian Ridley-Thomas would run, with Flynn using her school as the financial intermediary.
Flynn was indicted alongside Mark Ridley-Thomas in October 2021. In September, she pleaded guilty to a single count of bribery.
Flynn didn’t testify in this case, but her name was mentioned scores of times Thursday; she was portrayed as some sort of bumbling, greedy ogre, each side using her shortcomings to make their case. Prosecutors depicted Flynn as someone who, via a partnership with Ridley-Thomas, saw an opportunity to pump money into her school. “She wants to get paid,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsey Dotson said at one point.
Defense attorney Daralyn Durie also took some whacks, with a section of the closing argument dedicated to Flynn. The dean wanted to do good things, Durie said, but, “She broke some USC rules.” Later Durie remarked, “She wasn’t so good with the money.”
Opening statements began March 8, and the prosecution rested last Friday, with the star witness being an FBI agent who investigated the case; otherwise, a number of USC employees were called to the stand. The defense’s case was short and sharp—lasting just two days—with witnesses including a doctor who treated Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, and L.A. County higher-ups who explained that any contract or official motion is a lengthy, complex process, and not something done by a supervisor snapping their fingers. A current and former supervisor—Janice Hahn and Sheila Kuehl, respectively—both briefly testified.
The closing arguments could not have been more different. And both were impressive. That’s not surprising—the DOJ has bottomless resources and isn’t putting up a schlub to present a case against one of the most accomplished political figures in modern Los Angeles. Similarly, the $1.5 million contributed to a pair of Ridley-Thomas legal funds allowed him to hire Durie and others from the firm Morrison Foerster. If you want a sense of how they play ball, consider that their website is mofo.com. Just say it aloud.
Dotson was powerful and persuasive, modulating her tone and punching phrases like “nothing burger” and “jackpot email”—she’s got storytelling chops and could pull a side hustle as the host of a true crime podcast. The case, she said, was about “power, privilege, lies,” and an accompanying PowerPoint had section headlines with titles such as “Damage Control” and “The Big Push.” She asserted that business was done with “winks and nods” but could be elevated when necessary to pushes and shoves. She took a litany of emails sent by involved parties and stitched together a timeline to argue that Ridley-Thomas made key decisions based on when Flynn and others at USC did things to help his son.
Durie was more of a slow build. The defense lawyer started by stating that the case was not about Flynn, USC, or the pol’s son. “It’s a case about whether Mark Ridley-Thomas sold his vote,” she stated, a theme she would hit multiple times, saying, that, nope, he didn’t sell it. She declared that projects and issues he was voting on that helped Flynn’s school—such as probation reform—matched career priorities he had worked on for a long time and that he would have voted aye no matter what. She took the prosecution’s timeline and craftily pointed out more than a dozen additional happenings that, if included, might change one’s view of what transpired, and that made the government look pretty selective. By the end, folks in the gallery were nodding along and grunting in assent, though then again, it was a Ridley-Thomas crowd.
The show is not completely done as of now. Court rules dictate that the prosecution gets a final whack, which began late Thursday and will conclude today. Then the case goes to the jury, and Ridley-Thomas’ future will be in their hands—it’s truly a case that comes down to “reasonable doubt.”
A verdict could be rendered in hours, or it could take days.