#SeekingJustice

Deconstructing the Conviction of Mark Ridley-Thomas: Part 10 – The U.S. Government changes its story

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

On May 30, of this year, the conviction of former President Donald Trump by the Manhattan District Attorney prompted a renewed discussion on the importance of the rule of law in the U.S..

A reminder of the complexity of the discussion is reflected in the ethical boundaries required of criminal prosecutors because of the power they possess.  The most fundamental of these boundaries according to the American Bar Association, is the fact that the “primary duty of the prosecutor to seek justice within the bounds of the law, not merely to convict.” 

The National District Attorneys Association expressed that same principle this way:  “Regardless of their title, the role of the prosecutor remains the same. They represent the people of their jurisdiction and have a duty to seek justice in every case, carefully evaluating the evidence presented and protecting the rights of the accused.”

All of the above brings us back to the case of Mark Ridley-Thomas, who was for decades one of Los Angeles County’s most powerful and revered public figures.

Yet, despite his accomplishments as a public servant, as most readers of WitnessLA are aware, on March 30, 2023, Ridley-Thomas was convicted of bribery, corruption, and five other counts of a lesser known crime called “honest services fraud.” 

Post-conviction, the former LA City Council Member, former State Assembly Person, former State Senator, former member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, was sentenced to three-and-a-half years behind federal bars, and three additional years of supervised release.

Now Ridley-Thomas and his team are hoping to persuade the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to review the case.

The government replies

The post-conviction phase of the case of Mark Ridley-Thomas began on January 25th of this year when the team of five superstar appellate attorneys who are now representing MRT—as Ridley-Thomas is often known for short—filed their 102-page brief in order to appeal their client’s conviction with the Ninth Circuit.

(You can find WitnessLA’s story detailing the defense’s appellate brief here.)

Since that January filing by the defense, four additional legal events pertaining to the case have occurred.

The first of these new legal events was the filing—also in January—of three very interesting amicus briefs, all three of which are supportive of MRT.

Then in early April, the government filed its own 129-page brief  in answer to the filing by the defense.  In their answering brief, the prosecution works to shoot down the arguments made by the defense.

This coming Monday June 10, the defense is expected to file its answer to the prosecution’s answer to MRT’s January filing.

We’ll fill you in on the three Amicus briefs in a separate story.  But in order to set the stage for Monday’s expected defense filing, let’s take a look at the prosecution’s answer to the first appellate brief filed by the defense with the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Relitigation as a strategy

In their answering brief, the government, as expected, challenged the three main points contained in the January brief submitted by the defense.  Yet, the feds’ manner of countering the points made by Ridley-Thomas’s defense team, contained some unusual and unexpected features.

As mentioned above, the prosecution team, quite understandably, spent much of their time doing battle with the three main arguments made by the defense in January.

The first of the three arguments that the defense team presented, was an attack the lynchpin of the 19 charges filed by federal prosecutors against Ridley-Thomas, namely the charge of bribery which was the charge without which, the rest of the 19 charges against defendant Ridley-Thomas would vanish

In the second of their three arguments, the defense described how the prosecution’s theory of the criminal charge known as honest services fraud,” was incorrect. If true, that’s also a giant problem for the prosecution in that 17 out of the government’s 19 criminal charges, were some variation on the theme of  honest services fraud.

Then in their third argument, the defense pointed to the lack of Black women on the jury of a Black defendant.

(For more details on the defense’s three arguments in the January filing, read Chapter 9 of this series.)

Changing the subject

In order to counteract the attack by the defense on Ridley-Thomas’s conviction for bribery, in their answering brief the government elected to simply reimagine the core theory of the bribery/corruption case they filed against Mark Ridley-Thomas on October 13, 2021, which resulted in his conviction.

This means that, instead of defending case that the feds presented to the jury in March 2023, which resulted in seven guilty verdicts, in their recent filing the feds appear to be saying to whatever panel of 9th Circuit justices that ends up hearing the appeal later this year (if the 9th indeed agrees to hear the appeal),“if you don’t like the theory of guilt that we used to convict the defendant, a theory that the defense has attacked as flawed, we’ve got a nice new legal theory that you might like better, even though it wasn’t the theory we presented to the jury.”

Yet, before we go further into the details of the government’s new legal theory, it helps to be reminded of the prosecution’s original 19-count case, and which of those 19 charges comprised the jury’s seven-count guilty verdict last March.

The case and the conviction

In the indictment filed by federal prosecutors on Oct. 13, 2021, the government alleged that Ridley-Thomas — who was, at the time in question, a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors— engaged in a bribery and corruption scheme in which he steered a series of lucrative county contracts to USC’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.  He did so, said the prosecution, in return for two favors from Marilyn Flynn, the School of Social Work’s long-time dean, who was reportedly very worried about the fiscal health of the school that she had overseen since 1997.

In the March 2023 trial that resulted, the government’s prosecutors described how, in return for what the feds described as high-ticket county contracts, Dean Flynn did two major favors of her own for the well-known policymaker.  

(Note: Although the government continues to claim that MRT caused the passage of motions that resulted three or more lucrative contracts for USC’s School of Social Work, if one actually reads the motions pertaining to the first two or three “contracts,” it becomes clear the motions did not create contracts at all, but were “report back” items that produced exactly zero cash for the School of Social Work in particular—or USC in general.

Furthermore, the third “contract,” which became a big part of the center of the government’s case, was the renewal of an already existing 2016 contract, which also produced absolutely zero in the form of additional cash for USC, although the renewed contract moved some small amounts of money around within the strictly limited fiscal basket created in 2016.

For more on the alleged quid-pro-quo contracts, without the above cranky lecture, check out Part 4 of this series.

In any case, in return for these votes by Ridley-Thomas, Flynn performed two favors for MRT.  Her first favor was to help one of MRT’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 and also the Price School of Public Policy, efforts with which Flynn assisted.

Sebastian Ridley-Thomas was arguably not an illogical choice for such a position. At the time he initially talked to Dean Flynn and USC about his hope of going back to school for an advanced degree while teaching part-time, it was mid-May of 2017, and he was one of the youngest members of the California state legislature, having been elected at 26 to represent the state’s 54th assembly district in a special election in 2013.  

He was re-elected in 2014, and again in 2016. During the years in between, he was on prestigious legislative committees, and among his accomplishments were some youth-related bills, such as AB 1299, which improved the delivery of mental health services to youth in foster care. All of this made him a unique representative of a new generation of African American state lawmakers.

Furthermore, as is true with a long list of private universities, hiring people who are public figures of one kind or another as non-tenure track professors of some sort, or giving scholarships to people in whom the university has an interest, was not an unusual policy at USC.  

Former LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was given a professorship at the USC Price School of Public Policy. Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, is USC’s “Governor Downey Professor of State and Global Policy,” and the chairman of the Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy. In 2012, retired Gen. David H. Petraeus was named as a professor at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy.

It is also well known that Mayor Karen Bass received a scholarship that was, as Dean Flynn memorialized in an email to her colleagues, nearly identical to that of Sebastian Ridley-Thomas.

Bass finished her scholarship-supported master’s degree at USC in 2015. However, unlike the younger Ridley-Thomas, she did not ask for a part-time job as a non-tenured adjunct professor at USC, as she already had a full time job as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, where she served from 2023 to 2022, finally resigning in order to run for mayor.

The list of professorships and related academic favors for public figures goes on from there.

“You don’t have to like it,” defense attorney Daralyn Durie told the jury during closing arguments during MRT’s trial. But, at private universities like USC, this is how things are routinely done.

Ultimately, the jury appeared to agree with the defense’s view.

Yet, despite the fact that the jury declined to convict MRT of the 12 federal counts related to the scholarship and part time teaching gig, in their recent filing to the 9th, the prosecution ignored those inconvenient facts to write that “the dean lavished defendant’s son with preferential treatment unlike anything in school history. [italics ours].

Okay, moving right along.

Favor #2

Number two of Dean Flynn’s two alleged favors was the favor that resulted in Ridley-Thomas’s conviction.

That favor occurred in the spring of 2018, after the younger Ridley-Thomas had resigned from the state legislature, was attending USC, and had launched a non-profit organization in order to do polling and other research regarding Black voter trends, which was typical of the kind initiative supported by Ridley-Thomas over the years.  Yet, this particular initiative was jump-started by his son who was wrestling with redirecting his life.

Like many non-profit entities, the new organization the younger Ridley-Thomas started was not itself a 501(c)(3).

Acquiring non-profit status isn’t difficult, but it takes a while. As a consequence, many would-be non-profits instead go with what is known as a “fiscal sponsor,” which umbrellas down its own non-profit status to the smaller organization, while also offering various administrative services.  The sponsored organization, in turn, pays for these services with a fixed percentage of the funds the smaller entity raises.

In order to help the new non-profit get started, MRT donated $100,000 from one of his campaign funds, known as the Mark Ridley-Thomas Committee for a Better L.A.  (Such a donation to nonprofits that benefited his constituents, and/or encouraged local civic involvement was not uncommon for Ridley-Thomas. )

In any case, the fiscal sponsor for Sebastian Ridley-Thomas’s newly formed organization was United Ways of California.

The problem with this donation, according to the prosecution, was that Ridley-Thomas made his 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 $100,000 to make a donation to United Ways, with the designation that the donation was meant to be used by the new non-profit under the United Ways tent. 

Sebastian Ridley-Thomas was not, at the time, taking a salary from the nonprofit he had formed. The funds would be primarily used to hire a staff member who was to work with the younger Ridley-Thomas on the polling and research, but who would need to get another job to pay her bills, if she wasn’t hired in a timely fashion.

To counter the government’s ongoing contention that the donation from MRT’s campaign fund was in any way illegal, in trial the defense brought in elections law expert Ann Ravel of Berkeley Law School.

Post verdict, jury foreperson, Kirsi Kilpelainen told reporters, WLA included, that she and her fellow jurors believed Ravel. 

We thought the $100,000 donation was legal, she said.

Yet, foreperson Kilpelainen also told the same cluster of reporters that an email Ridley-Thomas sent to Flynn urging the dean to “act with dispatch” in routing the $100,000 to United Ways so that the employee could be hired before she took another job, was a significant part of what led them to finally come to a guilty verdict.

It was the funneling

Interestingly, according to Kilpelainen, it was the act of transferring the $100,000 from Mark Ridley-Thomas’ political campaign, through USC, then to his son’s nonprofit, which was the bribe that triggered their ability to convict MRT. It wasn’t the $100,000 sum in itself, that was the problem.

It was “the funneling,” the foreperson told reporters, repeating the word that prosecutors had repeated throughout the trial.

Then, last spring, in a conversation with the LA Times, Kilpelainen again explained that it was the moving of the $100,000, which the feds described as a sort of donation laundering that they called “funneling,” that was the issue that made conviction possible,  not the $100,000. 

In other words, through the trial, much of the government’s bribery case was based on the feds’ contention that MRT wished to avoid reputational bad optics, a theory they expanded on at length.  This theory of the case is made clear in quick perusal of the original October 13, 2021 indictment, in which the prosecution writes that Ridley-Thomas “concealed the agreement to funnel $100,000 from the Mark Ridley-Thomas Committee for a Better L.A. through the University/Social Work School to avoid any political fallout for defendant Ridley-Thomas.”

A scandal for the Ridley-Thomas family “was just not acceptable,” the government argued in closing, adding that this was because Ridley-Thomas “planned to run for mayor of Los Angeles.”

(We’ll return to the prosecution’s last supposition at a later date, so stick a pin in that thought.)

The government’s original case-in-chief v. the feds’ brand new case theory

As mentioned above, in their 129-page brief, the government challenged the three main arguments made by the defense in their brief. 

The first of those three arguments on the part of the defense pertains to the lynchpin of the 19 charges filed by federal prosecutors against Ridley-Thomas.

 That lynchpin charge is bribery.

There’s no Quid Pro Quo without the Quid

Here is a very brief version of what the appellate team wrote in their January filing regarding the bribery charge of which Ridley-Thomas was convicted (along with conspiracy, and five other charges that fall into the category known as honest service fraud): 

“While serving on the Los Angeles City Council,” the appellate team explains, Ridley-Thomas was indicted for bribery (plus the other original 18 counts), “following the discovery that then-Dean Marilyn Flynn,” of The USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work at the University of Southern California, “made a donation to a nonprofit associated with Ridley-Thomas’s son, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas,” and did so in a way that “violated University policy.”

Flynn’s action wasn’t a big violation of USC policy. It was simply against some technical rules.  “But,” the defense team argued in their appeal, “what should have begun and ended with an internal investigation” by the university into Flynn’s actions that violated USC policy, was “molded into a criminal prosecution untethered to federal precedent.”

In the prosecution of an elected official, wrote the appellate team, “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.”

Yet, there was no personal enrichment for MRT, wrote the defense in their brief, and there was no “intent to be influenced.”

In this section of the January appellate brief  (which you can find here), MRT’s team noted that the U.S. Supreme Court “has twice held that an ‘intent to influence’ requires a quid pro quo exchange.”  

Also according to MRT’s appeal, each of the 17 counts of “honest services fraud,” with which Ridley-Thomas was charged, also require proof of bribery or kickbacks, “coupled with deception material to the victim.” 

 (According to the government’s case, the “victim,” which is a necessary element of the charges, is all of Ridley-Thomas’s constituents.)

If the appellate brief filed by the defense in January is correct, and there was no quid in the quid pro quo, which—according to the defense—both bribery and honest service fraud legally require for a conviction, that’s a problem for the government. 

“The prosecution of Dr. Mark Ridley-Thomas involved none of these “prerequisites,” wrote the defense, “no personal enrichment, no intent to be influenced, and no deception material to the would-be victims.”

Theory swap

To address the above argument by the defense, a significant part of the government’s solution appears to be to replace their central theory of the case that resulted in Ridley-Thomas’s conviction, with a shiney new theory of the case, never-mind that they never argued this theory in trial.

Here, in part, is how the government explained their new replacement theory:

“Reputational benefit was merely one of defendant’s motives in soliciting and demanding benefits for his son.

Because reputational benefit was not the thing of value.

“In any event, money—in the form of the $100,000 payment from USC to United Ways for Sebastian’s nonprofit—is clearly a thing of value.

“It is immaterial that defendant made a sham donation to the Social Work School to facilitate USC’s payment to United Ways and PRPI. Just as a loan is a thing of value even if it must be repaid, the payment from USC had value to defendant; no “loss” to USC was required.”

All well and good.  But is that what the feds argued in trial last year? Does it matter if this isn’t the legal theory that the jury heard?

And given the government’s reliance on “facts,” that are provably false, such as the lucrative contracts that don’t exist, does this brand new theory represent justice?

New filing to come

On Monday, June 10, the defense team for Mark Ridley-Thomas will file its reply brief to the government’s answering brief in response to the defense team’s opening appellate brief filed in January of this year.

So….stay tuned

3 Comments

  • Are you really still “deconstructing” this? He’s guilty. But since he’s apart of your agenda to tear apart La County you’re not happy. GET OVER IT!

  • Celeste, why bring up Trump in your effort to defend MRT?. Are you saying they’re both victims of prosecutor misconduct? There’s certainly a case to be made there (at least for Trump) but your case for MRT hasn’t been all that convincing, a bit mealy mouthed.

    Why don’t you state in clear language how the Feds have violated MRT’s rights? Seems like you’re a bit conflicted here.

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