Cityside Column: Veteran L.A. politician’s legal team seeks to undo the seven guilty counts from his March trial
By Jon Regardie | May 11, 2023
Los Angeles was rocked on March 30 when a federal jury convicted Mark Ridley-Thomas of seven counts related to contracts and dealings with the USC School of Social Work. Although he was acquitted of 12 charges, the jury found him guilty of conspiracy, bribery, and mail and wire fraud. Sentencing is scheduled for Aug. 21.
If you think that’s the end of things, then you don’t know Jack—er, Mark.
As has been the case since he was indicted in October 2021, Ridley-Thomas continues to challenge the convictions, with a pair of legal filings submitted last week to Judge Dale S. Fischer. Both claim that there were numerous problems with the prosecution’s case and ask her to scotch the decision: One motion asks Fischer to vacate the verdict and order a new trial. The other calls for her to deliver a judgment of acquittal.
These are the equivalent of a basketball team coming back from a 3-0 playoff deficit to win the series. Fischer is a demanding judge who during the proceedings proved perfectly willing to slap around the prosecution or defense to keep things moving. It’s hard to envision her deciding that the high-profile trial on which she rode herd needs a redo.
That said, after three decades in city, county and state politics, Ridley-Thomas has far more wins than losses, including some that seemed improbable. That includes getting city leaders to reinstate the council salary that had been withheld while he was suspended awaiting trial—after a lengthy process he got his entire back pay (he is no longer receiving that salary, as the guilty verdict prompted his removal from the council).
This is bigger than just the trial, however. The verdict has cleaved Los Angeles, and I have continued to hear from people aghast that a Black politician with a lengthy record of achievement has been taken down for supporting the kind of community-benefitting projects he had worked on for 30 years. That’s the reason that after the verdict, public figures including Mayor Karen Bass came out with public statements extolling him.
The U.S. Department of Justice argued that Ridley-Thomas used his political position for personal gain. Lead prosecutor Lindsey Greer Dotson and her team built a case that he conspired with 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 to award him a scholarship and a teaching gig. Jurors were told that in return, the elder Ridley-Thomas, then a member of the County Board of Supervisors, pledged to direct lucrative county contracts to the school.
The decision was returned on the fifth day of deliberations, but as I wrote previously, a portion of Los Angeles feels that a verdict rendered was not justice served.
A glimpse into the jury’s thinking came in an interview that foreperson Kirsi Kilpelainen gave to the Los Angeles Times. She made clear that a deciding factor in the guilty verdict was the $100,000 that Ridley-Thomas directed from a campaign account through USC, with the money then flowing to a nonprofit that would be run by his son. That, combined with an email from the veteran pol asking Flynn to send the cash, cemented the decision.
“He asked Marilyn Flynn to do something for him,” Kilpelainen told the Times. “And in exchange, he voted yes on a county contract that would get money coming into her school.”
That may be cut-and-dried to some, and obviously it was enough for the jury. But it is also one area where things get interesting. During the trial, the defense argued that the donation was not illegal and got Ann Ravel, a former commissioner of the Federal Election Commission, to testify that it complied with California law.
Also continuing to irk supporters is the $100,000 was not destined for the pockets of anyone with the Ridley-Thomas surname. Rather, it was going to pay the salary of the woman who would be the executive director of the new nonprofit.
Ridley-Thomas’ team at the Morrison Foerster law firm has an arsenal of arguments. The 33-page motion requesting a new trial asserts that FBI agent Brian Adkins, who served as the prosecution’s star witness, gave a false statement that helped swing the verdict. There is no subtlety in a section of the document titled “Multiple Errors Infected the Jury’s Deliberations and Denied Dr. Ridley-Thomas a Fair Trial.”
The separate, 37-page motion pushing for acquittal swipes at the prosecution and Adkins, charging that he never fully understood how county government operates and that one powerful figure can’t mash through a contract with zero oversight. The filing charges that, “The government did not prove any quid-pro-quo.”
Prosecutors have until May 22 to submit their responses. On June 26, Fischer will have the parties in her courtroom, the same date that she sentences Flynn, who last September pleaded guilty to one count of bribery.
Ridley-Thomas supporters—from South L.A. clergy members to business people he worked with over the decades—remain resolute; so many of them flooded the courthouse the day of closing arguments that a second courtroom was opened to handle the overflow.
Will this resonate with Judge Fischer? It’s too early to tell, but it’s an uphill climb—successful federal cases rarely get bounced.
But where Ridley-Thomas is concerned, the exception is sometimes the rule.
This article was originally posted to Los Angeles Magazine