A primer on suspended Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas' bribery trial
The longtime powerbroker is accused of steering county contracts to the University of Southern California in exchange for his son's admission and professorship.
Attorneys will give opening statements Wednesday in longtime Los Angeles politician Mark Ridley-Thomas’ federal criminal trial after 12 jurors and six alternates were seated late Tuesday afternoon.
The 18 jurors include several people of color, including two men who are Black. Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers raised concerns that prosecutors were wrongly targeting Black potential jurors. One said the case “is about race” because it involves a “prominent Black politician,” and prosecutors extensively questioned two potential Black jurors.
But U.S. District Judge Dale Fischer said prosecutors had “race-neutral explanations” for wanting to strike them from the pool that she believes are credible. She also said the jury pool had the most “non-Caucasian” people she’s ever seen in a jury pool.
“I’m going to follow the law, and the composition of the final jury is the composition of the final jury,” she said. She earlier had prohibited attorneys from researching potential jurors on the Internet.
Ridley-Thomas, 68, is accused of steering contracts to the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work in exchange for his son’s admission and full-ride scholarship to the school as well as a paid professorship. He’s also accused of working with the now-retired dean USC’s School of Social Work, Marilyn Louise Flynn, to funnel $100,000 through USC to his son’s nonprofit initiative.
The Los Angeles City Council suspended him in October 2021, the same day he pleaded not guilty to 19 felonies: single counts of conspiracy and bribery, two counts of honest services mail fraud and 15 counts of honest services wire fraud.
Ridley-Thomas was elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 2020. His alleged crimes occurred in 2017 and 2018 when he was an elected member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Prosecutors say his son, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, needed a new career after resigning from the California State Assembly amid sexual harassment allegations, so his father worked with Flynn to ensure his admission to USC.
Flynn, meanwhile, was looking “to salvage her deanship” and address her school’s “multimillion-dollar budget deficit,” so Ridley-Thomas supported three county contracts for the School of Social Work in exchange for her help regarding his son, according to a 60-page trial memorandum from Assistant U.S. Attorneys Lindsey Greer Dotson, Michael Morse and Thomas Rybarczyk.
Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers describe the contracts this way:
Flynn pleaded guilty to a felony bribery charge in September. Her plea agreement says prosecutors will recommend a $100,000 fine when she’s sentenced, currently scheduled for June 23. In the meantime, Fischer is allowing her to travel to Botswana and Zimbabwe in May on a trip sponsored by the Phoenix Zoo.
Ridley-Thomas was joined at the courthouse Wednesday by his wife, Avis Ridley-Thomas. On Sunday, the couple stood at the alter of the Holman United Methodist Church in South Los Angeles as hundreds of parishioners prayed for them, according to the Los Angeles Times. The article said Ridley-Thomas “has a long legacy of service in Black Los Angeles” and “has cast the prosecution as an affront to the Black community and the cause of social and racial justice.”
Part of Ridley-Thomas’ defense is “that his support for these items was driven not by a bribe from USC, but by his legislative agenda.”
His lawyers said that when opposing a request by prosecutors to limit the amount of evidence jurors will see about Ridley-Thomas’ political work.
“The Government intends to portray Mr. Ridley-Thomas as a corrupt politician who let his son’s interest in attending USC influence his vote,” his lawyers wrote. “The evidence in question rebuts that narrative directly by showing that his support for the items at issue in this case dates back years before his son ever expressed interest in attending USC.”
Judge Fischer agreed with Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers, writing in a March 2 order that the four specific documents prosecutors wanted barred are actually relevant to why he supported USC’s involvement in the county probation department.
Ridley-Thomas was originally represented by a team from Los Angeles boutique Durie Tangri, led by Managing Partner Michael Proctor.
But Durie Tangri joined the international law firm Morrison Foerster in January, and Proctor split off and opened his own practice. Ridley-Thomas’ case went to Morrison Foerster, with Daralyn Durie as his lead counsel. MoFo partner Galia Amram and Arturo Gonzalez also are working the trial, as are associates Ramsey Fisher, Christina Randall and Jessica Elaine Lanier.
They previewed their case Tuesday during jury selection. Potential jurors were asked if they have negative views regarding race and legacy playing a role in college admissions. Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers excused one who said he doesn’t believe race should play a role in admission and doesn’t support affirmative action.
One woman was excused after she explained her brothers were attorneys — one prosecutes crimes for the LA City Attorney’s Office — and their father is a retired Los Angeles County Superior Court judge who went into private mediation.
After swearing in the 18 jurors, Judge Fischer told them not to “call tomorrow and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know we needed to come back.’” One alternate then spoke up and said he only gets paid for one week of jury service when the trial is expected to be four to six weeks. He ended up being excused, and attorneys went through a couple more potentials before finding a suitable replacement.
As of late Tuesday night, the judge had not yet issued her written order regarding two statements from Flynn that prosecutors want to use in trial. Both occurred in emails Flynn sent USC professor Jacquelyn McCroskey regarding his plans to involve the School of Social Work in the county probation department.
“I am holding my breath...MRT is really trying to deliver here.”
“Yes, I talked with Mark about this, and I am very happy to see that he was good as his word.”
McCroskey testified Monday in an evidentiary hearing that she didn’t ask Flynn what she meant by either comment.
“And she testified that she never had any conversations with Dean Flynn about Sebastian Ridley-Thomas’s role at USC,” Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers wrote in a brief. “She can provide no salient evidence of Dean Flynn’s intent.”
McCroskey also testified she has “enormous respect” for Ridley-Thomas and knew him to be a leader in the area of probation reform. She gave him a warm smile and nod after she left the witness stand.
Court reconvenes Wednesday at 7:45 a.m.
Normally, I would say stay tuned for my coverage of opening statements, but I am flying to Chicago at 10:50 a.m. on Wednesday. I was invited to speak at the DRI Medical Liability and Health Care Law Seminar about trials I’ve covered and the different styles of lawyering I’ve seen.
I will be back in California in time to catch testimony on Monday, and I plan to watch as much of the trial as I can from there on out. I hear the first witness is an FBI agent whose testimony is estimated at 10 hours.
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