In the strange case of the United States of America versus Mark Ridley-Thomas (USA v MRT) consistent themes continue to emerge. Abuse of power. Official overreach. Exaggerated claims of corruption. Deliberate avoidance of relevant information. Assumption of impropriety. Unmistakable implicit bias. Headlong rush to judgment.
Such was the case when CD10 voters were disenfranchised by the Los Angeles City Council without consultation in October 2021, no more than a week after he was indicted for bribery, conspiracy and honest service fraud. In a purely arbitrary act of power, MRT was summarily suspended, without due process, without a hearing, without the opportunity to examine the evidence, without his presence. (He was in court pleading not guilty, contesting all accusations.) The Council’s hasty action transpired with the advice of a City Attorney, who was himself under investigation by federal prosecutors in the United States Attorney’s Office (USAO). The City Controller followed suit by exceeding his authority to revoke MRT’s pay and medical benefits – during a once in a century pandemic.
The brief filed with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals presents a compelling case for overturning Dr. Mark Ridley-Thomas’s conviction with more nuanced echoes of the pattern established by the City. According to the brief, the conviction was based on a novel misapplication of the law linked to a fatally flawed and overly expansive legal theory. This was a blatant example of prosecutorial overreach reminiscent of the official actions taken by City officials.
Traditional bribery involves private enrichment at the victim’s expense. In this case, there was no private enrichment. He didn’t trade official acts for University of Southern California (USC) benefits received by his son, Sebastian. Instead, government prosecutors pursued an unprecedented bribery theory: intangible “nepotistic optics” became the tangible “thing of value” exchanged for official acts that formed the basis for “bribery” and “honest services fraud.“
There was no evidence that MRT steered multiple contracts “worth millions of dollars” or violated normal County contract procedures. Only one “contract” was at issue, the extension of a contract MRT previously supported. It appropriated no new funding. It was passed unanimously by the Board of Supervisors without controversy and in accordance with normal procedures. Contract extension amendments were negotiated by staff in the Department of Mental Health. There was no evidence MRT pressured others to support them.
A $100,000 financial contribution made by MRT to USC was legal. It met the requirements of State law, enforced by the Fair Political Practices Commission. The contribution was properly disclosed.
Accusations that his son received USC benefits (admission, free tuition and an adjunct professorship) could not be proven. The jury acquitted MRT on all the counts related to these specific charges.
His accusers in the USAO avoided relevant information and assumed impropriety and corrupt intent. They subpoenaed no County records. They called no County witnesses. They objected to testimony from an expert on campaign finance disclosure law. In sum, the allegations of criminal behavior were nothing more than exaggerated claims of corruption designed to justify their own abuse of prosecutorial power.
“What should have begun and ended as an internal investigation at USC resulted in a prosecution untethered to federal precedent,” states Alyssa Bell, appellate counsel for MRT. “Mark Ridley-Thomas did not line his own pockets. Quite the opposite – he donated $100,000 of his own ballot committee funds so that [the community non-profit think tank] Policy Research and Practice Initiative (PRPI) could hire a full-time staff member and begin its work of polling Black Angelenos about their legislative priorities. This is the first prosecution ever to proceed on such a theory.”
During jury selection, the government used two of its peremptory challenges to exclude two Black women from the jury. One observer notes that “by using its peremptory challenges to remove the only two Black female jurors, the government simultaneously denied MRT the right to a trial by his peers, and the right of the two Black women to sit in judgment of him as peers and to impartially weigh the evidence for and against the defendant.” Their exclusion from the jury makes explicit the government’s implicit bias – i.e., that Black people are inherently unqualified to follow the law or compete for or serve in positions of responsibility. This is unmistakably implicit bias.
In the appellate brief’s narrative, the U.S. Attorney’s Office uses its prosecutorial discretion to fabricate a unique and unprecedented interpretation of the laws governing “honest services fraud” and “bribery” to remove Mark Ridley-Thomas from office and to make him an example to those elected officials willing to use their power to benefit their underserved constituents. This chills legitimate policymaking. We see this as an abuse of power.
In the strange case of USA v. MRT, the appellate team assembled by Dr. Mark Ridley-Thomas presents extraordinarily powerful arguments for setting aside this conviction and sentence at best or granting him a new trial at minimum. Government prosecutors and federal judges are not infallible. They make mistakes. Were it not for the public support MRT enjoys and the public scrutiny engendered by this case, we would know far less about the flaws of the federal judicial system. In pursuing his constitutional right to appeal his conviction on 7 of 19 counts, MRT and his team have exposed the lengths to which government prosecutors in the USAO are willing to go in pursuit of winning over the truth and fairness. This case merits continued public scrutiny. We stand by this appeal.