A David v Goliath Story
The second week of the projected five-week trial, the United States of America v. Mark Ridley-Thomas (USA v MRT) ended on Friday with the Prosecution resting its case. The Federal government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that MRT sought to monetize his County Supervisor position by trading official acts in exchange for benefits to himself or a third party.
Prosecution’s Star Witness Testifies
The Prosecution’s theme for the week rested largely on the documentary evidence Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigators and the U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO) amassed by subpoena — approximately 400,000 pages in all — according to the government’s star witness, FBI Special Agent Brian Adkins. The documents include emails, phone records, voicemails and paper documents.
During Adkins’ testimony, the Prosecution guided him through emails, phone logs and a “sealed, confidential letter” from Dean Flynn to MRT that taken together, the government claimed were designed to outline the essential elements of Dean Flynn’s efforts to secure for USC the public resources that would ultimately be exchanged for Ridley-Thomas’ son's (Sebastian AKA SRT) admission to the Schools of Social Work and Public Policy for a dual Master’s degree; a tuition scholarship; appointment to a non-tenure track practitioner professorship; and MRT’s $100,000 donation from a ballot committee to the fiscal sponsor of the policy think tank SRT established.
Adkins’ testimony was preceded by another USC faculty member, Dr. Mike Nichol, who testified that Dean Flynn’s arrangement and interest in assisting SRT’s admission and appointment was unusual. The tedious, repetitive review of email evidence designed to underscore the point did not appear to wear well on the jury. Many were visibly bored and disengaged with more than a couple displaying a post time change hangover.
The government’s other witnesses included another USC employee and two United Ways of California (UWCA) officials who were involved in processing the $100,000 donation from USC and the subsequent $100,000 sponsorship of Policy, Research and Practice Institute (PRPI). UWCA succeeded Community Partners as the fiscal sponsor for PRPI.
Adriana Gonzalez, a USC account clerk, processed the issuance of the check to UWCA . She testified to Dean Flynn’s desire to expedite the USC payment and to the Dean’s interest in knowing when the matter was completed. Mary Rose McMahon and Peter Manzo were the United Ways of California employees who invoiced and processed the $100,000 USC sponsorship for the benefit of PRPI. They also testified that they assisted in the hiring of PRPI’s only compensated employee, Vanetta Smith.
USC’s Processes and Advocacy the Focus of the Trial
USC is not on trial. However, at issue is whether MRT improperly utilized his position as a County Supervisor. But at no point during the trial did the Prosecution explain County processes and how MRT was supposed to have violated them.
That’s because the federal government could not.
Under cross examination, Special Agent Adkins acknowledged that government investigators and prosecutors never talked to or interviewed any of the policy deputies or staff in MRT’s office.
Under cross examination, Adkins made multiple important admissions: he admitted he never reviewed the actual Telehealth contract in question; that he had only a vague understanding of the County’s contracting and budget process; he had not confirmed the actual value of the Telehealth contract or any efforts by USC to access resources beyond the $547,500 cap on reimbursement in the Telehealth contract extension. Regarding claims about SRT, Adkins also admitted that he failed to personally read Assembly Rules Committee evidence that SRT had been interviewed by independent investigators regarding the sexual harassment claims and, perhaps more importantly, that he calculatedly omitted exculpatory evidence from government exhibits.
Standard investigative procedure requires objectivity and the search for all the facts surrounding a case.
Criminal Investigative Standards, Implicit Bias and Race
By choosing to not inquire into the County’s contracting and budget process or even to confirm assertions made by USC officials and others, the government was able to craft a case asserting that just one person, MRT controlled County government. Never did the government acknowledge that the Telehealth contract in question was the work of many County departments, staff and officials, and that it proceeded through the standard, multiple layers of checks and balances. Recall that in its press release announcing the indictment on October 13, 2017, the government said, “…the indictment alleges, Ridley-Thomas supported contracts involving the Social Work School, including contracts to provide services to the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and Probation Department, as well as an amendment to a contract with the Department of Mental Health (DMH) that would bring the school millions of dollars in new revenue…Flynn expected the Telehealth contract to generate approximately $9 million per year for Flynn’s Social Work School.”
Yet, the Prosecution introduced no evidence that the Telehealth contract extension could achieve Flynn’s goal, thus undermining the integrity of the investigation by failing to verify the veracity of the claim before publicizing it as truth.
How could they? Adkins admitted he never read the actual contract.
Shockingly, the Prosecution rested its case without calling ANY County officials or witnesses to testify.
The Prosecution’s timeline regarding SRT’s departure from the State Legislature, a supposed trigger for the USC contract, was not sound.
The government made a huge deal out of the Dean’s attempt to appoint SRT to a non-tenure track practitioner professorship in mid-December 2017. But the actual evidence revealed that SRT first expressed interest in pursuing admission to the Schools of Social Work and Public Policy and the adjunct teaching assignment as early as the spring of 2017.
The scholarship and adjunct professorship offer were extended only after a USC official, Dr. Michael Nichol, associate provost of online curriculum and head of tenured hires at the School of Public Policy, testified to concerns about the haste of SRT’s hire and demanded/received the University’s highest level background check (e.g. academic degrees conferred, credit reports, criminal record, reference, etc.) on SRT. The witness was forced to admit under cross examination that no derogatory information about SRT was found. Also on cross-examination, Dr. Nichol, when discussing “optics” and qualifications, admitted that with regard to optics, the well-known and widely publicized sexual harassment claims against Arnold Schwarzenegger did not prevent the former governor from having an association with the School of Public Policy or USC.
The timeline introduced by the government indicates the conspiracy to steer contracts to USC started in 2017. However, MRT’s collaboration with the School of Social Work on all three issues in question — creation of Probation University, establishment of the one-stop Vermont Ave. Re-entry Center and the Telehealth mental health service contract date to as early as 2013 - fully four years before the government’s timeline begins.
The criminal investigative standards employed in this pursuit do not live up to the FBI’s reputation. It appears that the implicit bias of the investigators impacted their objectivity.
A Black politician with a 30+ year career and record of service who has amassed the power and influence to deliver progressive reforms attracted scrutiny and attacks. Criminal justice reform, implementation of Obamacare with its emphasis on mental health and telemedicine, support for the formerly incarcerated in an era of mass incarceration, intersectionality and multi-disciplinary approaches to public service delivery, mutually beneficial deployment of district assets to innovatively address constituent needs, efforts to undermine the legacy of racial discrimination, policy research that seeks to advance and reinforce Black political power are the subtext and context for the Federal government’s determination to prosecute MRT. His unique ability to translate public demands for public policy changes into innovative and progressive government services constitute a genuine threat to those interested in maintenance of the status quo.
Now that the Prosecution has rested its case, one thing is clear: with little more than circumstantial evidence, the government is substituting highly selective evidence, memes, speculative headlines, “optics” and "perception", for evidence.
They are relying on "perception", which in America can be problematic for people of a darker hue, and conviction by intimidation. They thought MRT, reinforced by his legions of supporters, would blink, cop a plea and perp walk quietly off the political stage – his stature diminished and his legacy of pragmatic progressive policy making in tatters. Instead, MRT chose to marshal his resources, mobilize support from his family, friends, allies and the community and defend himself, his reputation and the progressive, empowering agenda he continues to advance.
This week, the Defense gets its turn to make its case with the match tilting in MRT’s favor.