Prosecutors seek conviction of Ridley-Thomas as jurors begin deliberations
A jury made up of a large Southern California swath began deliberating Friday morning on whether to convict suspended Los Angeles City Council member Mark Ridley-Thomas of bribery.
Before the panel of 12 entered the deliberation room, a federal prosecutor delivered a full rebuttal to the arguments made by the Ridley-Thomas defense, urging jurors to weigh the evidence “by the facts, the law and the common sense” and find the veteran politician guilty.
“It is not a defense that all actions taken were good for the community or were actions the defendant would have taken,” said aide US Atty. Michael J. Morse said.
Morse explained how Ridley-Thomas voted and acted in a way that benefited USC’s school of social work and its former dean. “The only question for you is, was the defendant doing these things for Marilyn Flynn in order for her to do things for him?”
“The next question is: do you think he knew? »
Ridley-Thomas was charged with 19 counts: a conspiracy charge, a bribery charge and the rest, for honest services, mail or wire fraud.
He is accused of accepting bribes from Flynn – namely a host of benefits provided to his son – in exchange for presenting or voting on certain LA County agenda items and pressure on county officials to perform certain acts regarding the issuance or modification of government contracts. Each Honest Services mail and wire fraud count is linked to a FedEx email or letter sent in late 2017 or 2018 as part of the alleged scheme.
The bribery charge accuses Ridley-Thomas of accepting or intending to accept benefits from Flynn under county contracts. The conspiracy charge accuses Ridley-Thomas of unlawfully conspiring with Flynn to engage in honest service fraud and bribery.
Her co-defendant, Flynn, previously pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing – but jurors in the case are unaware she has been charged or pleaded guilty.
Ridley-Thomas did not testify in his defense. What his lawyers offered, Morse said in his 90 Minutes rebuttal on Friday, were a number of “distractions.”
“They want to do everything except the accused,” he said. Among the red herrings: vilifying lead investigator, FBI Special Agent Brian Adkins; disparaging the motives of Flynn’s underlings by sounding the alarm about his dealings with the Ridley-Thomas family; suggesting that USC concocted a criminal reference to Ridley-Thomas to serve an unspecified institutional agenda; and put Ridley-Thomas’ support for key county votes in the case less on his actions and more as the almost predestined outcome of the Blue Ribbon Commission, a report that recommended how LA County could better serve children in risk.
“Most of their arguments were from a keyhole perspective,” Morse said. What the Ridley-Thomas defense lacked was a credible explanation of major episodes in the case, particularly the $100,000 donation that was funneled through USC, he said.
On Thursday, Ridley-Thomas attorney Daralyn Durie claimed the handling of the $100,000 donation was more or less Flynn’s fault: She put the money in a bank account at USC, but the outgoing money went to the son of politician Sebastian Ridley-Thomas. came from another account at the university. In all of this, Durie said, his client was unaware.
“This explanation completely ignores that this was all done at the direction of the defendant,” Morse said, showing jurors the “fake” donation letter he attached to his check to USC. “That’s not an explanation at all.”
Morse accurately described the start of the plot: in May 2017, when Ridley-Thomas reached out to Flynn seeking a phone call, which led to the two chatting for 37 minutes. The next day, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas emailed Flynn, to which the Dean replied, “I’m so glad to hear from you, and so quickly.”
“She’s waiting for that call,” Morse told jurors. The prosecutor pointed out what Flynn had to gain: to have one of the most powerful members of the supervisory board in his corner.
“Flynn wasn’t the only one asking things of the defendant,” Morse said. “She has to go to the front of the line… It’s her ticket to the front row.”
In defense of claims that there was no chance of corruption – that motions passed by Ridley-Thomas were uncontroversial, expected and even unavoidable, Morse asked why Flynn insisted so hard on taking action: “If the cake is baked, why is she still in the kitchen?
In the prosecution timeline, December 2017 is a critical month. That month, Ridley-Thomas’ son Sebastian was the subject of a still-secret sexual harassment investigation and his father feared damage from a #MeToo scandal in his own family, prosecutors said. They point to emails from Ridley-Thomas and his public and legal relations team that show their desperation for Sebastian to quietly leave the Legislature and find a prestigious landing spot.
During this month, one day stands out: December 14th. That day, Ridley-Thomas introduces Flynn to the director of the LA County Department of Mental Health; Flynn telling his staff that getting Sebastian admitted – with a scholarship – must be “the highest priority”; and an email from one of Ridley-Thomas’ deputies introducing Flynn to the director of the county child welfare agency.
The next morning, Flynn tells a fellow USC dean to post Sebastian’s job offer before the holidays – “to show the MRT that we can deliver”. Morse pointed out that Flynn didn’t want to show “SRT,” the son, that the university could hold its end of the bargain; the focus, he said, was on the father.
“It’s nice to be the son of one of the five kings,” the prosecutor said, alluding to the nickname of the five-member oversight board and their control over a $30 billion budget.
Defense attorneys have repeatedly sought to highlight the absence of LA County figures in the prosecutors’ case, saying it was evidence of an investigation that had blind spots. Morse urged jurors to consider the weight and veracity of testimony offered by former Ridley-Thomas staffers and former LA County colleagues.
“They were either defendant loyalists or they were out of the loop – or both,” Morse said, saying they had little information or knowledge about Ridley-Thomas’ behind-the-scenes communications with Flynn.
Another category of the Riley-Thomas defense were experts, including Sebastian Ridley-Thomas’ doctor, and Ann Ravel, who was proposed as a campaign finance specialist and vouched for legality of the $100,000 donation through USC.
“Ann Ravel testified in a vacuum, and it appeared she didn’t have all the information,” Morse said. He noted how Ravel claimed to be a vocal opponent of dark, untraceable money in politics – but then testified that it was legal for Ridley-Thomas to donate to USC through a voting committee and then to order USC to donate money to his son’s nonprofit, without a paper trail.
“This transaction was designed to be disguised,” the prosecutor said. “She was here to do a job and she did it…You don’t have to believe an expert on anything.”
Los Angeles Times