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Civics & Democracy

Mark Ridley-Thomas Corruption Trial Now In The Hands Of The Jury

City Council Member Mark Ridley-Thomas, wearing a suit and glasses, speaks to an interviewer off-camera.
Mark Ridley-Thomas.
(Screengrab from L.A. City Channel 35. )
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The federal corruption trial of suspended Los Angeles City Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas is now in the hands of the jury. The prosecution and defense made their closing arguments Thursday, and the prosecution completed its rebuttal argument Friday morning.

Ridley-Thomas is charged with one count of conspiracy, and one count of bribery. He also is charged with two counts of “honest services” mail fraud and 15 counts of “honest services” wire fraud.

In her summation Thursday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsey Dotson acknowledged there was no single document that laid out a conspiracy between Ridley-Thomas and Marilyn Flynn, dean of USC’s School of Social Work. The conspiracy allegedly involved Ridley-Thomas securing lucrative county contracts for the school in exchange for the dean providing his son with a scholarship and faculty job. The alleged crimes occurred while Ridley-Thomas was a county supervisor.

But Dotson pointed to a flurry of emails and calls between Ridley-Thomas and Flynn starting in 2017 and running through 2018 that revealed “winks and nods” — including one email with a winking emoji and another with a fist bump emoji.

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There is “no question he acted corruptly,” Dotson said of Ridley-Thomas. The fact that the county approved the contract for USC and Ridley-Thomas’ son Sebastian got a scholarship and a job with the school “is not a coincidence,” she said.

‘Winks and nods work’

Just the suggestion of an exchange of benefits is enough, said Dotson, asserting, “winks and nods work. That’s how the real world works.”

In one email, Ridley-Thomas told Flynn, “Your wish is my command,” the prosecutor said.

Dotson said Ridley-Thomas was "constantly dangling county carrots to Marilyn Flynn” at a time when the School of Social Work was in financial trouble.

Dotson referred to an email Flynn wrote to a colleague regarding potential money for the university in which Flynn wrote, ”I’m holding my breath. MRT is really trying to deliver here.”

Prosecutors also claim that as part of their deal, Flynn agreed to funnel $100,000 from a Ridley-Thomas political campaign fund through the School of Social Work to a new nonprofit headed by his son.

Flynn pleaded guilty to bribery last September, admitting she agreed to route the money to the nonprofit as a result of her desire to win county approval of a renewed contract for USC’s online mental health clinic.

Dotson spent considerable time discussing sexual harassment allegations that purportedly contributed to Sebastian Ridley-Thomas’ decision to resign from the state assembly in 2017 — a move she said provided Mark Ridley-Thomas with a motive to help his son financially.

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The younger Ridley-Thomas cited health reasons when he stepped down and denied the sexual harassment allegations.

‘Nobody … needed to bribe Mark Ridley-Thomas on any of these issues'

Defense attorney Daralyn Durie pointed out that almost all the prosecution witnesses were from USC, and that none were L.A. county government employees, who she argued could have explained that normal processes were followed in the county contracts.

In testimony as defense witnesses Wednesday, County Supervisor Janice Hahn and former Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said Ridley-Thomas did not try to cajole them to support the contracts in question.

Durie said two of Ridley-Thomas’ votes involved support for studies of possible new contracts with USC, not the approval of money. The third vote, she said, was to extend an existing contract for the online mental health clinic that had a spending cap on it.

The other two votes dealt with a probation reentry center near USC and a probation employee training program. Durie repeatedly noted that Ridley-Thomas had supported these types of programs as a “longstanding advocate for probation reform. Nobody would have thought they needed to bribe Mark Ridley-Thomas on any of these issues.”

With regard to USC granting Sebastian Ridley-Thomas a scholarship, Durie said, “You don’t have to like it but it's a thing that happens.” She reminded the jury that Mark Ridley-Thomas “is certainly not on trial for anything his son did.”

Durie said that while the funneling of the $100,000 from Ridley-Thomas’ campaign fund through the university to his son’s nonprofit broke university rules, there was nothing illegal about it, and in any event the elder Ridley-Thomas knew nothing of the transaction.

She raised questions about the credibility of one of the lead FBI agents who investigated the case, arguing he had made up his mind about Ridley-Thomas early on in his inquiry.

The agent “made up his mind there was a crime before he gathered all of the information,” Durie said. “It's important not to jump to conclusions.”

“I ask you to return [Ridley-Thomas] to his work and to his family,” she said.

The City Council suspended Ridley-Thomas last October in response to his indictment.

An earlier version of this story misidentified Ridley-Thomas' defense counsel. We apologize for the error.

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