LA Focus: Marking Time: As Mark Ridley-Thomas Awaits Sentencing, The Community Weighs the Impact of a Conviction On His Legacy

LA Focus: Marking Time: As Mark Ridley-Thomas Awaits Sentencing, The Community Weighs the Impact of a Conviction On His Legacy

August 8, 2023 | lafocus

Lisa Collins

When Judge Dale S. Fischer sentences Mark Ridley-Thomas (MRT) on August 21, it has the potential to bring an ignoble conclusion to an otherwise stellar career of public service.  According to federal sentencing guidelines, Dr. Ridley-Thomas could face 97 to 121 months in federal prison and a monetary fine commensurate with the value of the bribe derived from his action — directing a $100,000 sponsorship from USC to a non-profit organized for public benefit and a contract extension for the benefit of USC that did not increase from the original amount.

Last month, Fischer sentenced former USC Dean Marilyn Flynn to three years probation—including 18 months of electronically-monitored home confinement—and a fine of $150,000 for her stating that she had arranged for the funneling (through USC) of $100,000 to the United Ways in the high profile bribery case involving Ridley-Thomas.

The government did not seek a custodial sentence, noting competing factors, including Dean’s advanced age of 84, her health and personal history and her acceptance of responsibility.

The recent sentencing of Flynn has potentially significant implications for Ridley-Thomas who did not accept a plea deal, opting to go on trial to prove his innocence. A mountain of letters attesting to Ridley-Thomas’ legacy, deeds and character have been submitted to the judge and will stand in juxtaposition to a daunting prosecution portrayal of the veteran civil servant.

In reaching her decision, Judge Fischer will consider the “nature and circumstance” of Ridley-Thomas’ offenses as well as his “history and characteristics.”  On these variables, supporters of MRT have considerable hope.

Mark Ridley-Thomas was acquitted on 12 of the 19 counts (or 63%) in the government’s indictment. The twelve counts on which MRT was acquitted were the most damning in the October 2021 grand jury indictment.  These counts pertained to the most readily understandable allegations of corrupt intent and personal financial gain by the public.  Pursuit and receipt of benefits for his son — graduate school admission, paid tuition and an adjunct professorship — in exchange for support of County contracts constituted the best demonstration of “quid pro quo” proof of bribery and conspiracy.

Mark Ridley Thomas was found not guilty on these counts.

Not so easily quantifiable is the increased value of the L.A. County Department of Mental Health Telehealth contract extension he was convicted of in exchange for School of Social Work Dean Marilyn Flynn’s dispatching a $100,000 sponsorship from USC that originated from funds controlled by Ridley-Thomas in a legal donation.  The government offered no evidence that USC received any increased monetary benefit from the contract extension.  And neither MRT nor his son received any personal benefit from USC’s $100,000 sponsorship.

Thus, the conspiracy and bribery convictions won by the government hang on a Mark Ridley-Thomas request to expedite a legal contribution to a non-profit for the purpose of facilitating the timely employment of unrelated staff.

Government prosecutors themselves offered evidence that the intent of the $100,000 sponsorship of the Policy, Research and Practice Initiative (PRPI) Ridley-Thomas “orchestrated” was for the purpose of facilitating the timely employment of unrelated staff.  MRT’s effort to expedite a contribution to a non-profit think tank—to “funnel” as it is characterized by the government—was stated as an attempt to ensure that the political preferences, opinions and behaviors of African Americans would be taken into consideration during the 2018 election year cycle  — in short, Black political empowerment!

PRPI was established as a think tank devoted to surveying and analyzing the political preferences, priorities and perspective of African Americans. The effort was part of a decades long effort to study, analyze, understand, organize, motivate and mobilize his primary political base:  African Americans—an effort that had resulted in the registration of 200,000 voters, mainly in South Los Angeles.

Ridley-Thomas consciously cultivated his base of support within the African American community through civic engagement and faith-based outreach and mobilization, voter registration, education and participation over his four decades of public service.

Carson Councilman Jawane Hilton characterized him as a real-life superhero for the Black community because of his transformative work.

“MRT has undoubtedly been a man for the people, and this is shown through his actions, impact, and the legacy he has created.”

But some wonder how this conviction and impending sentence will impact his storied career and legacy.

“There are lots of people who believe that the entire investigation, prosecution and conviction are ill-founded, and in some ways, politically and racially motivated and I think for those people they will never this conviction will not tarnish his reputation or anything that he has accomplished,” observed attorney, CNN commentator and KBLA radio host Areva Martin.  “They will always view him as one of the most effective African American elected officials in the modern era of California politics.

“Other than that, there are those, particularly his political enemies who are celebrating what they see as his downfall. People who have weighed in to say he was always arrogant. For those people, sentencing will be the cherry on top of a victory they will claim is what he deserved. That this is the perfect ending for a person who they believed was not for the people or perhaps more appropriately not for them.

“So those political enemies who continue to criticize and support the narrative that has been disseminated by USC and the mainstream media,” Martin continued. “They’re people who don’t ask any questions or challenge the lies I believe should be troubling to everyone.

“Whether he’s your enemy or not, so much of the prosecution’s case did not match the narrative that has been fed to the public for two years even down to the sentencing memo for Marilyn Flynn. Comments made by the prosecution in that sentencing memo don’t match any of the evidence produced at trial.  One of the most striking things said in the memo is that she was somehow intimidated and pressured by him…that he was somehow like a kingpin and had a monopoly on contracts in the second district. That was never ever, ever said or introduced.”

Pastor K.W. Tulloss, who serves as president of the Baptist Minister’s Conference believes there will be little impact.

“I don’t believe a conviction can erase over 30 years of great leadership that Mark Ridley-Thomas provided to the city of Los Angeles and his vast body of service, including the Martin Luther King hospital, the expansion of the Metro Line—particularly the Leimert Park Station, and his battle against homelessness.

“Mark Ridley-Thomas has been on the front line of the serious issues our communities have faced,” Tulloss continued. “He’s not been afraid to champion policy for the least of these. So, his service, his achievements, and his love for people should be a reflection on those who will be sentencing him within the next few weeks. The other night at a community event, Mark Ridley-Thomas was given a standing ovation. This community knows the work he’s done and will not forget.”

Indeed, the veteran lawmaker has been greeted with love and appreciation in the form of standing ovations on those occasions where he has attended public events and been acknowledged for his service.

To that end, it is clear that his absence on the political stage leaves a huge void, especially in the African American community.

“No other politician wielded political power across the broad spectrum of issues so effectively”, former staffer Vince Harris wrote in a previously published opinion piece. “While the built environment in South Los Angeles bears the physical imprint of his advocacy, the pocketbooks of his constituents have benefitted as well. The cultivation of support in and among his African American base explains this sense of loss.”

It is the reason why so many supporters—including L.A. Department of Water and Power chair Cynthia McClain-Hill, KBLA owner Tavis Smiley, SCLC president William Smart, actor Glynn Turman, author and professor Cornel West and California Endowment President/CEO Dr. Robert Ross—were among those packing out the courtroom during his trial.

The sentiments of actor Glynn Turman perhaps best describe how many of them felt.

“A community runs on those who care and those who are in position to take that care from just concern to movement,” observes the famed actor Glynn Turman. “This man has always been about movement with the concern that he has for his community. I will always support him because I’m part of that community.”

Mayor Karen Bass characterized him as “a champion for our city, a civil rights activist, thought leader and policy maker who made real impact on this city.”

Said Bishop Kenneth Ulmer, “Mark Ridley Thomas has given life as a sower. He has sown seeds of progress into the soil of our community.  He has sown seeds of dignity into hearts and minds of a coming generation.   He has sown seeds of vision and resilience in our entrepreneurial community builders. These seeds have been planted deeply. The harvest will come forth for generations to come”.

In the minds of some—particularly those cynical about politics and politicians or who may not have liked Ridley-Thomas—his legacy will suffer, says Rev. Norman Johnson, who leads the South Los Angeles Clergy for Public Accountability.

“Will his legacy be tarnished? Of course, it will in the minds of some. This is the injustice of it all and why the conviction of Mark Ridley-Thomas for a victimless crime—no evidence of self-gain or criminal intent— is a travesty for many.  There is a line in the Bible about the Servant of Isaiah 53 being counted with the transgressors. However, the legacy of Mark Ridley-Thomas will survive. The conviction cannot erase the work and achievements of a 30-year stellar career in public office.”

His biggest battle and impassioned priority was in fighting homelessness.

“Mark sounded the alarm on homelessness before most understood we faced a widespread crisis — and he took action,” said Congresswoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove. “I don’t know that the public understands how much worse the crisis would be today without Mark’s leadership. With his determination to get Measure H passed, Mark effectively helped 84,000 people off the streets and helped prevent another 22,000 from falling into homelessness. Obviously, we need to expand our efforts, but Mark Ridley-Thomas’ efforts continue to benefit the people of Los Angeles, making all of us safer.”

It is a passion that has continued even as he awaits sentencing through the Praxis newsletter, which is funded by the Mark Ridley-Thomas Committee for a Better L.A and serves to not only spotlight efforts against homelessness, but to provide information to the community about resources for everything from housing and rental assistance to mental health programs.

Said one legal observer, “Mark Ridley-Thomas constitutes no threat to public safety or public integrity.  By virtue of MRT’s felony conviction, he has been stripped of his job, his pension and his reputation — his political achievements and legacy diminished.

“Again,” Martin reiterated, “those people who are willing to be objective, willing to understand and read the transcripts and the facts, would have to be suspect of the entire process and the outcome, even if you don’t like him for personal or political reasons. I just believe all of us should be concerned about prosecutorial overreach and misconduct of authority because we know as a black community, we continue to be the ones most impacted by this.”

In the meantime, former staffer Vincent Harris contends, “The public — his constituent ‘victims’ on the other hand have lost a gifted, once-in-a-generation servant leader whose work ethic, competence and ability to ‘get things done’ is indisputable.”

The impact of that loss, many believe to be immeasurable.

“His is a remarkable, important legacy of a man who got things done,” said SCLC-LA president William Smart. “Just as his work speaks for him now, I believe it will speak for him in the future.”

This article was originally posted to L.A. Focus on the Word