WHERE WE STAND—MRT Bribed Himself?

WHERE WE STAND—MRT Bribed Himself?

Federal prosecutors in the United States Attorney’s Office (USAO) will file their response by today, Monday, April 8 to Dr. Mark Ridley-Thomas’s (MRT) appeal of last year’s bribery, conspiracy and honest services fraud conviction and sentence. The appeal compels the USAO to defend a criminal prosecution for which many observers believe the legal foundations were shaky.

CD10Voices anxiously awaits the USAO’s defense of the case. We want to see their response to the scholarly challenges posed by MRT’s legal team to the prosecution’s substitution of “optics” for material benefits in the trial record; to the definitions of “bribery” and “a thing of value” as prescribed by law; to the expansive interpretation of honest services fraud that by their own admission makes this case “unique” and “novel”; and to their justification for denial of a trial by MRT’s peers by excluding Black females from the jury pool.

MRT’s Appellant’s Opening Brief (AOB) is a brilliant and comprehensive assault on the legal underpinnings of the prosecution’s case. It boldly asserts, “The government’s theory is invalid as a matter of law.”

The argument is straightforward: In the case of an elected official like Dr. Ridley-Thomas, the essence of bribery is quid pro quo corruption where the quid — is personal enrichment, solicited with the intent to be influenced in the performance of official action. Honest services fraud requires proof of bribery or kickbacks coupled with material deception to the victim. The prosecution of Dr. Mark Ridley-Thomas involved none of these prerequisites: no personal enrichment, no intent to be influenced, and no deception material to the would-be victims.

According to the prosecution, MRT unlawfully steered contracts to USC; pressured County officials into supporting them; and then voted for these so-called “lucrative” contracts worth millions of dollars to USC while serving on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. In exchange, MRT allegedly received numerous benefits from USC, (including his son’s graduate school admission, free tuition, a paid adjunct professorship and a donation to a non-profit managed by his son). The jury found MRT “not guilty” of the specific charges related to the USC benefits with quantifiable monetary value he was accused of orchestrating for his son.

The jury found MRT guilty of bribery, conspiracy and honest services fraud for voting for one non-controversial County contract extension worth less than half a million dollars in exchange for a $100 thousand contribution made by USC to the non-profit. Contrary to the USAO’s pre-trial press release and opening statement with their repetitive and exaggerated claims of corruption, prosecutors never introduced any evidence that more than one “contract” was ever at issue. No new funding was appropriated. No irregularities surfaced in the County’s normal contracting procedures. The value of the contract in question remained capped at the original amount. The USAO called no County officials to testify that they were ever pressured. They introduced no evidence that any single supervisor had the power to steer contracts or that MRT single-handedly negotiated contracts for USC. There was no evidence that MRT violated any ethics rules or County policies.

A lawful $100k contribution from a ballot committee controlled by MRT — not government funds — made to USC is central to the appeal and at the root of the USAO’s credibility problem. That $100k contribution was the original source of USC’s donation to the non-profit. It was made at the discretion of the USC dean. Neither MRT nor his son received any personal enrichment or monetary benefit from it — not one red cent!

Prosecutors say, however, this exchange constituted an illegal “bribe” even though the “thing of value” MRT received was nothing tangible — like cash, a job, a car, an apartment or a Rolex.

Instead, according to the USAO, the “thing of value” MRT received and for which he was convicted was the avoidance of made up, immaterial “nepotistic optics” that could result in nebulous reputational harm. Thus, prosecutors argued that MRT defrauded his constituents by exchanging something of value (the contract extension) to obtain federal prosecutors’ perception of favorable “optics” and enhanced “electability” — not kickbacks. In the process, prosecutors said MRT denied constituents his “honest services” as their elected official by opting to “monetize his vote” for a contribution to a non-profit that originated from non-government funds he already controlled. By their twisted logic, MRT bribed himself — not for any personal enrichment — just a burnished reputation. As constituents of the Tenth District we deserve to know how in the world could that be?

The MRT contribution to USC was legal and properly disclosed. Prosecutors fabricated a crime to justify a “unique” and “novel” prosecution. In other words, they manufactured an interpretation of the honest services fraud statutes to fit their flawed theory of criminal activity.

The very credibility of the USAO is at stake. Only this time, the jury they must convince are three jurists on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. An increasingly skeptical court — the court of public opinion —eagerly awaits the USAO’s response.

Were MRT’s honest services fraud conviction permitted to stand, it would pose a real and present danger to the democratic rights of all citizens—elected or not. That’s not good for our community, or our city. And that’s where we stand.