By Celeste Fremon | July 17, 2023
(If you’ve not yet read Part 1 you can find it here.)
Two weeks ago, at 9:58 a.m. on Monday, June 26, U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer entered her 7th floor courtroom at the United States Courthouse at 350 1st Street in downtown Los Angeles, with the purpose of hearing two motions filed by the attorneys for Mark Ridley-Thomas.
Nearly an hour before the 10 a.m. hearing was to begin, the courtroom was jammed to the point that any currently practicing lawyers who had showed up to support Ridley-Thomas and his wife, Avis Ridley-Thomas, were asked to sit in the jury box in order that the rest of the supporters in attendance could somehow squeeze into the courtroom’s pew-like benches.
Even so, not everyone could find a seat, so the U.S. Marshalls in attendance kindly allowed those still left standing to cluster by the courtroom door.
There were, in fact, a lot of practicing lawyers in the group of men and women who began showing up outside the federal court as early as 7:30 a.m. in the hope of avoiding the inevitable jam-up at the building’s security entrance.
In addition to the attorneys who made their way to courtroom 7D to support Ridley-Thomas, there were also physicians, corporate heads, an array of well-known religious figures, deans and professors at universities other than USC, child welfare experts, youth justice experts, former staff members, multiple clusters of longtime constituents, the head of one of California’s largest philanthropic foundations, and the attorney wife of one of the best known and most beloved public affairs commentators, who came to represent both herself and her husband. And…well, the list goes on from there.
When the hearing finally began, the onlookers instantly became intensely focused on the alternating arguments by the defense and the prosecution, everyone seemingly buoyed by the possibility, however slim, that at least one of the two motions would turn out to be a legal magic wand.
The two motions
To recap: On March 30, 2023, Mark Ridley-Thomas, one of Los Angeles County’s most powerful and respected public figures, was found guilty of seven out of the 19 federal counts brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Central District of California. After his March conviction, Ridley-Thomas’s defense team from Morrison & Foerster LLP took the next logical legal step by filing two motions that defense attorneys Daralyn Durie and Galia Amram would argue on June 26.
One of the two motions is known as a Rule 29 motion, which asked Judge Fischer to declare an acquittal, alleging that the government failed to adequately prove Ridley-Thomas’s guilt in any of the prosecutors’ nineteen charges.
In part, a Rule 29 motion is often something of a Hail Mary pass. It can be made at two points in a case. The first point is near the end of a criminal trial, right after closing arguments.
The second time this particular motion may be made is after a guilty verdict.
Since a Rule 29 motion asks for a judge to overturn that jury verdict, in making a determination on such a motion, a judge doesn’t generally assess the credibility of witnesses, or weigh whether or not the “evidence” presented by the government is factual. It’s more about whether the evidence is adequate, than it is an assessment as to whether or not it’s…true.
Yet, another worthwhile purpose of a Rule 29 motion is to preserve issues for an appeal.
The other motion was a Rule 33 motion, in which the defense attorneys asked Judge Fischer for a new trial.
In presenting this motion, Ridley-Thomas’s defense team argued — among other things — that there were multiple instances of “false and misleading testimony” by the prosecution’s star witness, FBI Agent Brian Adkins, which strongly affected the jury’s decision. In short, the defense attorneys wrote that FBI Agent Adkins had lied several times while testifying under oath, two of those “false and misleading” statements on critical issues pertaining to the renewal of a contract between Los Angeles County, and USC’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.
(Since we’ve been researching the conviction of MRT — as Mark Ridley-Thomas is known for brevity’s sake — we’ve run across at least one other statement reportedly made by Agent Adkins under oath that also appears to be untrue. But we’ll get to that particular issue in one of the upcoming chapters.)
The judge speaks
The June 26 hearing was on a Monday. On Friday of that same week, Judge Fischer issued her ruling on the two motions, both of which she denied.
Regarding the Rule 29 motion for acquittal, Judge Fischer wrote of the defense’s argument, that while “alternative interpretations of the evidence may also be plausible,” that was not grounds “to overturn a jury verdict.”
As for the Rule 33 motion, which requested a new trial, Judge Fisher ruled that the court had “found no error in any of the points raised by Defendant in his motion” (such as the FBI agent allegedly lying several times on the stand), there was still “not sufficient cumulative error to call for a new trial.”
And that was that.
It maybe should be noted that Judge Fischer got the date wrong for a motion passed by the LA County Board of Supervisors on July 31, 2018. This motion was the most essential of the three motions that were a critical part of the government’s theory of guilt, and which played a significant part in the jury’s seven guilty verdicts, according to the jury foreperson.
But no one’s perfect.
And it doesn’t change the bottom line.
The defense’s next available legal move will be to file an appeal with the 9th Circuit Court once Mark Ridley-Thomas is sentenced on August 21.
All of which brings us back to the question of whether or not Mark Ridley-Thomas is guilty of any of the 19 counts for which he was charged, or more relevantly, for any of the seven of those 19 counts of which he was convicted.
At the time that Ridley-Thomas was indicted he’d been in public office for 30 years, first as a member of the Los Angeles City Council, then a member of the California State Assembly, followed by the state Senate, followed by multiple terms as an L.A. County Supervisor. After he termed out of his position on the board he went back to the city council.
When, nearly two-and-half years later, Ridley-Thomas was found guilty of seven federal felony charges, including one count of conspiracy, one count of bribery, one count of honest services mail fraud, and four counts of honest services wire fraud, there were generally two responses from those Los Angeles residents who had to some degree or other been following the respected policymaker’s case.
One response was the assumption that anyone in public office who wound up with that many federal counts against them had to have, in some way or another, taken advantage of the power their position accorded them. Even if they’d amassed mountains of accomplishments for the communities they served during their years in office, if they strayed over the legal line with some sort of quid pro quo arrangement…well…actions have consequences.
The second response to MRT’s conviction is the one held by a significant portion of LA residents, and that is the belief that a shattering miscarriage of justice has taken place that should terrify all of us.
This is the view held by MRT’s supporters, a growing number of whom continue to reach out to WitnessLA with informative insights and information.
The case and the charges
To assess the government’s case against Mark-Ridley Thomas, it first helps to understand the 19 counts with which he was charged on October 13, 2021, and the theory on which those charges are based.
The first count was for conspiracy, the second for bribery. Counts three and four were each counts of what is called “honest services mail fraud.” The final fifteen charges were for the similar but different crime of “honest services wire fraud.”
Most of us likely have a pretty reasonable grip on the meaning of bribery, and conspiracy. The other seventeen counts, however, are less familiar. So, for purposes of future discussion, here’s the deal:
In 1988, the U.S. Congress added a new type of offense to the charging arsenal of federal prosecutors. These new charges were called “honest services fraud” offenses, which involved the use of the mail or “wires” to engage in an activity that deprives citizens of the “honest services” owed to them when public officials failed to disclose conflicts of interest, self-dealing, or participation in bribe or kickback schemes.
For the first couple of decades these charges were on the books, however, they were rightly criticized for being fuzzily defined. Then in 2010, when considering an appeal related to the case of Enron CEO, Jeffrey Skilling, the U.S. Supreme Court narrowed the scope of honest services fraud to cover only bribery and kickback schemes.
(We’ll have more about the way the two types of honest services charges were used in the case of Mark Ridley-Thomas later in this series.)
As we mentioned in Part 1, according the government prosecutors, the 19-counts against MRT were the result of a scheme of bribery and corruption in which, Ridley-Thomas — then a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors — steered three lucrative county contracts to USC’s School of Social Work, one of which, the government told the jury, could bring the school up to eight million new dollars.
In fact, two of the so-called contracts weren’t contracts at all. And the third contract was a renewal of an existing contract that would bring USC exactly zero new dollars. But more on that later.
According to the feds, MRT did all this contract-bringing at the request of Marilyn Flynn, the School of Social Work’s long-time dean, who was reportedly worried about the cash flow of the school that she had overseen since 1997.
In the multi-week trial, the government’s prosecutors described how, in return for three reportedly big-ticket county contracts, Dean Flynn did two favors of her own for the well-known policymaker.
First of all, she helped one of Mark Ridley-Thomas’s twin sons, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, to get a scholarship for a master’s degree in social work at USC. At the same time, the younger Ridley-Thomas applied for a part-time job as a non-tenured adjunct professor at the Dworak-Peck School of Social Work with which Flynn assisted, and also at the Sol Price School of Public Policy, which was run by a completely different dean than Marilyn Flynn, a fact that the prosecution mostly ignored.
The second favor, according to the prosecution, occurred in the spring of 2018, after the younger Ridley-Thomas had resigned from the state legislature, was attending USC, and had started a nonprofit organization in order to do polling and other research in Black voter trends, which was reportedly also a part of his research agenda at USC.
In order to help the new nonprofit get started, MRT donated $100,000 from one of his campaign funds, known as the Mark Ridley-Thomas Committee for a Better L.A.
It takes a while to apply for nonprofit status. In the meantime, many new and/or small nonprofits acquire their 501(c)(3) status through a “fiscal sponsor.”
The fiscal sponsor for Sebastian Ridley-Thomas’s newly formed organization was United Ways of California.
But, instead of sending his $100,00 donation directly to United Ways, Ridley-Thomas senior made the donation using a two-step route: MRT’s Committee for a Better LA donated $100,000 to USC’s School of Social Work. And Dean Flynn, in turn, used the same funds to make a donation to United Ways, in order that SRT, who was not taking a salary, could hire one of his former assistants in the state legislature, to help with the polling.
In that way, USC and the School of Social Work could arguably lend its prestige to the new project, and claim credit for supporting the new research, without having to incur any dollar cost of their own. This also reportedly meant the nonprofit could jump start its polling project, with a focus on that year’s upcoming governor’s race.
The prosecutors’ view of this sequence of events was quite different. In their case, the government described the two step journey of the $100,000 from MRT’s Committee for a Better LA to USC, and then from USC to fiscal sponsor United Ways, as a form of donation washing, so to speak, to disguise the fact that the cash had originated from a fund controlled by Sebastian Ridley-Thomas’s father.
According to jury foreperson, Kirsi Kilpelainen, who came out to talk to reporters (WLA included) after their verdict was announced, on that final morning of their deliberation, she and her fellow jurors believed they had found a series of foundational illegal acts that included MRT emailing Dean Flynn to “act with dispatch,” in wiring the $100,000 from USC to United Ways, in order to be able to hire the new employee, so they didn’t lose her.
This gave the jury their first guilty verdict on one count of “honest services wire fraud,” (in that the cash was wired to United Ways’ bank account) and the other six counts of guilty verdicts followed from that point.
The sense of anguish felt by Ridley-Thomas’s supporters following Judge Fischer’s rejection of both defense motions has been increased by the government’s sentencing memo filed last Monday, July 10.
The 17-page memo, which you can read here, doesn’t directly pertain to Mark Ridley-Thomas. It is a document submitted to Judge Fischer regarding the government’s recommendations for sentencing 83-year-old Marilyn Flynn who, rather than go to trial, agreed to plead to one count of bribery.
In the memo, the government recommends that Flynn, who will be sentenced on Monday, July 24, be given 36 months of probation, “including a term of 18 months’ home confinement, and a fine of $150,000.” The government doesn’t recommend any “custodial” time. In other words, they don’t believe the 83-year-old former dean needs to go to prison.
The alarming part of the memo is the government’s portrayal of Marilyn Flynn as not so much a co-conspirator, but a victim of Ridley-Thomas, who has accepted “fulsome” responsibility for her actions to “facilitate a self-serving and corrupt scheme directed and orchestrated by RIDLEY-THOMAS.”
(The above capitalization is that of the prosecutors, not WLA.)
MRT, as mentioned earlier, will be sentenced on August 21. Between then and now, additions to what is reportedly already a library’s worth of letters of support for Mark Ridley-Thomas will continue to make their way to the office of Judge Dale Fischer.
This article was originally posted to Witness LA