“Long-time politician Mark Ridley-Thomas was found guilty by a jury today of bribery in a scheme in which his son received substantial benefits [emphasis added in italics] from the University of Southern California…in exchange for Ridley-Thomas’ political support for lucrative county contracts and contract amendments with the university while he served on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.” (March 30, 2023 DOJ/USAO CA Central District Press Release)
The jury found Mark Ridley-Thomas (MRT) “not guilty” on the charges directly associated with a typical bribery case - the exchange of his vote for something of monetary value (of personal benefit) to himself or someone else — in this case his son, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas. These benefits were graduate school admission, free tuition and a job—a paid (non-tenure) adjunct professorship position.
These “substantial benefits” were purportedly exchanged for MRT’s political support of the USC School of Social Work in the prosecution’s bribery scheme. The jury rendered a split verdict. It acquitted MRT on the illegal acts related to admission, free tuition and the paid professorship for his son, Sebastian (SRT). Reference to them should be eliminated when describing the conspiracy and bribery convictions. Given MRT's acquittal on these charges, the DOJ/USAO press release continues to promote a misleading, inaccurate and incomplete narrative regarding the conspiracy and bribery convictions and scale of “corruption.”
A $100,000 donation from USC to a non-profit led by Sebastian was the fourth “substantial benefit” cited by the prosecution. The conspiracy and bribery convictions were predicated solely on MRT’s request of School of Social Work Dean Marilyn Flynn to expedite her legal, discretionary sponsorship from USC to the non-profit organization. Neither Mark Ridley-Thomas nor Sebastian Ridley- Thomas personally benefited from the transaction.
MRT was convicted for attempting to expedite the transfer of $100,000from the dean’s discretionary account to United Ways of California in orderto facilitate the timely employment of a much-needed new staff person. That $100,000 contribution from USC originated from a campaign committee controlled by MRT to fund political and policy analysis.
The goal was to establish a unique community-based think tank and to initiate research into and analysis of African American political behavior — Black political empowerment — in time for the 2018 General election. The prosecution itself affirmed that the transfer from MRT’s ballot committee account of $100,000 (the Mark Ridley-Thomas Committee for a Better Los Angeles) to the dean’s discretionary account at USC was lawful and properly reported.
“Many of the jurors believed that there was no connection between MarkRidley-Thomas and the USC things, and it came back to the [legal] $100,000 donation,” [jury Foreperson] Kilpelainen said [in post-verdict comments]. These circumstances illustrate the confusing and problematic nature of the jury’s verdict and prosecution itself.
“Ridley-Thomas supported contracts [plural] involving Social Work
School, including contracts to provide services to the Department of
Children and Family Services (DCFS) and the Probation Department, as
well as an amendment to a contract with the Department of Mental Health
(DMH) that could help bring the school potentially millions of dollars
in new revenue.” (March 30, 2023 DOJ/USAO CA Central District Press
A single Los Angeles County contract extension/amendment to enhance mental health service delivery was related to any of MRT’s seven guilty counts. The prosecution entered no evidence that any additional “contracts” were ever negotiated or issued. There was no evidence introduced about the potential value of any other action undertaken by the Board of Supervisors or contracts entered into by the County in connection to this case. The Telehealth contract extension was negotiated and recommended by the Department of Mental Health (DMH). It was approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors. The contract extension’s monetary value was no greater than the original 2016 contract. The prosecution entered no evidence at trial to prove its initial October 2021 statement that any action by the County “could bring the school potentially millions of dollars in new
The original DMH Telehealth contract was previously supported by MRT and other board members. The amendment included non-controversial changes to client eligibility and reimbursement rates for Telehealth services delivered on-line by the School of Social Work. The overall value of the contract extension remained the same as the original contract. No additional funds were authorized or appropriated. The prosecution entered no evidence that MRT ever hesitated to support the Telehealth program he helped to establish, nor the contract extension.
“He [MRT] voted on three county proposals that Flynn had sought to
shore up her school’s shoddy financial situation – it faced a multimillion-
dollar budget deficit – including a vote approving an amended Telehealth
agreement with more lucrative terms for the Social Work School.”
(March 30, 2023 DOJ/USAO CA Central District Press Release)
The only County “proposal” voted on by MRT that contained actual “contract” language pertaining to the USC School of Social Work with any relevance to the jury’s guilty verdict was a Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health (DMH) Telehealth contract extension/amendment. The value of the contract extension to USC did not promise “millions of dollars” as originally claimed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office — a fact underscored by the Sentencing Memoranda submitted to the court by government prosecutors for both Mark Ridley-Thomas and Dean Marilyn Flynn.
Contract extension amendments negotiated by DMH adjusted reimbursement rates and expanded eligibility to remotely deliver mental health services to veterans, family members and children in the care of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). No additional County revenue was appropriated
or budgeted beyond the cap on funding in the original 2016 contract.
Work on two other “proposals” — a Probation Department One-stop Re-
Entry Center on Vermont Ave. initiated by MR-T in 2014 and a “Probation
University” proposal authored by Supervisor Janice Hahn in October 2017
— occurred before the key events in the alleged conspiracy and bribery
scheme. USC was invited to participate in the design of the Re-Entry
Center after the University Park campus officials raised public safety and
security concerns about its location near the campus. Supervisor Hahn’s
“Probation University” motion made no explicit reference to the USC School
of Social Work. It merely instructs County staff from a variety of offices,
departments, labor groups and other stakeholders to consult “other parties
deemed appropriate and necessary to report back in writing within 180
days” on a variety of issues such as design, curriculum and funding.
Each proposal was non-controversial and adopted by unanimous vote of
the Board of Supervisors. MRT was a vocal and long-standing advocate of
Probation Department reforms intended to improve outcomes and reduce
recidivism. These two proposals contained no evidence that any reimbursable “contracts” for services to be rendered by the USC School of Social Work were ever considered, obligated, negotiated or issued by the Probation Department.
“He [MRT] also sought to influence key county decision-makers
associated with these approvals and made sure Flynn knew of his
efforts.” (March 30, 2023 DOJ/USAO CA Central District Press Release)
There was no evidence introduced by the prosecution that then-
Supervisor Ridley-Thomas ever pressured any County employees in
the County business matters at issue. The prosecution called no
County witnesses at trial. No County official claimed MRT or his staff
violated County rules or engaged in any impropriety. Consistent with
the obligations of accountable representation, past practice and legislative
experience, then-Supervisor Ridley-Thomas and his staff fulfilled their duty
and obligation to keep a constituent stakeholder, irrespective of the issue,
informed about his advocacy efforts. That was his job. For the duration of
his tenure on the Board of Supervisors, Mark Ridley-Thomas was USC’s
representative. Before that, he represented USC in the State Senate, State
Assembly and Los Angeles City Council dating as far back as 1991.
“At the time of his resignation, Ridley-Thomas' son [Sebastian] was the
subject of a sexual harassment investigation in the Assembly, a fact not
known by either USC or the public. Emails and testimony at trial,
prosecutors argued, showed that the [health] reason given for the
resignation was pre-textual.” (March 30, 2023 DOJ/USAO CA Central
District Press Release)
At the time of his resignation, then-Assembly Member Sebastian
Ridley-Thomas (SRT) was experiencing ill health throughout 2017 as
was proven during the trial. Given the nature of his maladies and his
right to privacy, his health issues were not widely known. Sebastian’s
physician stated under oath that he had undergone at least five
surgical procedures, experienced one adverse response to antibiotic
treatment for a persistent infection, and a wound abscess and
infection in the area of the surgeries that required in-home wound
care from a visiting nurse. Treatment of these infections resulted in a
“potentially life threatening” medical condition, according to his
doctor. SRT was advised by his physician to reduce his stress and
consider a different line of work in light of other medical conditions that
adversely impacted his health.
“By funneling the payment through USC, Ridley-Thomas and Flynn attempted to disguise the true source of a $100,000 payment to make it appear as though USC, not Ridley-Thomas, was the generous benefactor supporting Ridley-Thomas’ son and PRPI. Had it known this fact, USC would not have approved the $100,000 payment.” (March 30, 2023 DOJ/USAO CA Central District Press Release)
The $100,000 payment from a Mark Ridley-Thomas controlled ballot
committee to USC was legal (as confirmed by the U.S. Attorney) and
was fully disclosed in conformance with the California Political
Reform Act - the state’s campaign finance law. The $100,000
sponsorship from USC to the non-profit came from the USC School of
Social Work Dean’s discretionary account and did not require the
approval of other USC administrators.
“An indictment contains allegations that a defendant has committed a
crime. Every defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven
guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” (October 13, 2021 DOJ/USAO CA
Central District Press Release)
Notwithstanding this maxim, immediately following the verdict, the USAO continued to perpetuate the myth that Mark Ridley-Thomas exchanged his “honest services” as an elected official for benefits he allegedly received for his son “including graduate school admission to pursue a dual master’s degree, a full-tuition scholarship, a paid professorship.”
The jury found MRT “not guilty” of the acts specifically associated with
these benefits. By not specifying the subject of the acquittals referenced in
the USAO’s post-verdict press release (“Ridley-Thomas was found not guilty of one count of honest services mail fraud and 11 counts of honest services wire fraud”), the omission exaggerated the nature of the bribery and conspiracy claim, downplayed the significance of the acquitted conduct, obscured the prosecution’s decision to overcharge, confused the public, and helped the prosecution’s push for punishment that is greater than necessary to achieve justice.
“Flynn also endeavored to quickly secure the paid professorship, even
though [SRT’s] dual student-faculty status would violate university
policy.” (October 13, 2021 DOJ/USAO CA Central District Press Release)
Without a waiver from the University Provost, the dual student-faculty status extended to Sebastian Ridley-Thomas (SRT) would have violated university policy. His February 2018 offer letter was conditioned upon receipt of a waiver of university policy prohibiting student-faculty status in the same academic program, according to witness testimony and court exhibits. The offer letter was made by both the deans of the School of Social Work and School of Public Policy after completion of the University’s highest level background check. Both the evidence and testimony indicated that the USC School of Social Work dean initiated the hiring process for the non-tenure track professor of practice in December 2017. A USC School of Public Policy official wrote to SRT in February 2018 saying that the school had received Provost [central campus administration] approval of the request to waive the usual hiring process according to evidence presented at the trial. An article appearing in the USC Daily Trojan as early as August 2018 reported that, “Approval for Ridley-Thomas’ position even went through the
“University leaders were aware of Sebastian Ridley-Thomas’ status as a
student,” according to the student newspaper. SRT accepted the appointment on March 10. He was hired to serve both schools by making classroom and “brown bag” presentations related to the political process and assisting in organizing events involving both local and state governments. He relied on the deans and academic administrators at USC to know and follow the university’s rules.
At trial, USC administrators called as witnesses by the prosecution confirmed that the professorship of professional practice offered to SRT did not require review by faculty committees since the appointment was non-tenure track and followed the normal process, but for a USC “whistleblower’s” own failure to pursue SRT’s waiver in a more timely manner.
According to United States Attorney Martin Estrada, “[The MRT] verdict
sends a clear message to public officials that my office will vigorously
investigate and prosecute those who abuse their power and thereby
breach the public trust.” (March 30, 2023 DOJ/USAO CA Central District
The government conducted a shoddy investigation, replete with implicit bias and willful ignorance of County governance and process, and presented an inaccurate public narrative based on prevarication and innuendo. In its post-verdict comments following MRT’s trial, the FBI and USAO continue to perpetuate the falsehood that the jury found him guilty of exchanging more than one taxpayer-funded “contract” to the school for more than one “benefit” to SRT. Investigators and prosecutors alleged that Mark Ridley-Thomas “steered” multiple contracts to USC worth “millions of dollars” in exchange for graduate school admission, free tuition and a paid professorship for his son as well as a $100,000 donation to a non-profit he headed.
At trial the prosecution did not introduce any evidence of more than one “contract” (an extension) was at issue; that its value was more than the original 2016 appropriation (not millions); and that MRT “steered” contracts. The prosecution failed to win guilty verdicts on the charges related to admission, tuition and the paid professorship. The prosecution did not interview County officials in order to understand the County contracting, budgeting, policy formulation or the Board of
Supervisor’s processes. The prosecution deliberately chose not to call a single witness from the County of Los Angeles; subpoenaed no documents from the County; offered no proof that actions related to Probation University and the one-
stop Probation Re-entry Center resulted in contracts for USC’s School of
Social Work; and presented no evidence that MRT pressured anyone to
support any legislative item.
At trial FBI Special Agent Brian Adkins could not recall how the money worked with the key Telehealth contract amendment/extension; did not know the specifics of how the County process worked for approval of county items; did not speak to anyone to try to understand it; did not know if the normal process was followed with respect to each of the County items at issue; and instead relied on a review of “some” of MRT’s subpoenaed emails to understand “generally how that may have worked[.]”. Adkins’ false testimony related to the review and handling of evidence
was even the subject of a special jury instruction from the judge.
“Mark Ridley-Thomas Found Guilty of Bribery and Fraud Involving Benefits for Son in Exchange for Lucrative County Contracts” (March 30, 2023 DOJ/USAO CA Central District Press Release Title)
Mark Ridley-Thomas was tried and found guilty of 7 of 19 counts. The 12 counts involving Sebastian Ridley-Thomas were acquitted by the jury. The case’s “Honest Services Mail/Wire Fraud” (Counts 5, 15, 16, 19 and 20) focus on MRT’s ballot committee wire of $100,000 to USC and on the $100,0000 donation from USC to United Ways of California. Guilty verdicts on these counts were the principal bases for guilty verdicts on the “Bribery” (Count 1) and “Conspiracy” (Count 2) counts. Ironically, even the federal government agreed that MRT’s $100,000 contribution to USC was not illegal and his expert witness, Ann Ravel, testified to this during the trial.
Neither Mark Ridley-Thomas nor Sebastian Ridley-Thomas received any monetary benefit from the transaction. USA v. MRT is not a typical bribery case.
“Many of the jurors believed that there was no connection between Mark Ridley-Thomas and the USC things, and it came back to the [legal] $100,000 donation,” [jury Foreperson] Kilpelainen said [in post-verdict comments]. These circumstances illustrate the confusing and problematic nature of the jury’s verdict and prosecution itself. A more accurate and responsible headline than the one advanced in the USAO’s press release would have been, “Mark Ridley-Thomas Found Guilty of Bribery and Fraud Involving Funding of a Non-Profit Community Think Tank.”