He has not been charged with any crime. But in the ongoing trial of suspended Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, his son is in the spotlight.
Jurors saw photos of Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, read his words in emails, and heard about his mounting debt, medical problems, education, and career.
In 2017, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas was 30 years old and abruptly resigned from the state Assembly before the end of his third term.
He publicly blamed his failing health. But in the final weeks of that year, as the #MeToo movement raged against the powerful and privileged, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas was under investigation related to two allegations of sexual harassment, a fact not included in his resignation letter but apparently it was on his mind and his father’s.
“FYI… rumor has it another LA legislator is next,” Sebastian Ridley-Thomas wrote to his father when he sent him the news of Assemblyman Matt Dababneh’s resignation amid allegations of sexual misconduct.
“Don’t react,” Mark Ridley-Thomas urged his son. “These are scare tactics.”
Sebastián’s status as a time bomb of scandal enlivens the prosecutors’ case against his father, making the son at once a motive, a beneficiary of alleged corruption, and an alleged accomplice.
In the prosecutors’ account, Mark Ridley-Thomas, sensing a threat to the family’s political brand, helped choreograph Sebastian’s resignation to come out between Christmas and New Years, and leaned on a USC dean. to secure a landing spot for her son, including a scholarship, a job, and a donation to a nonprofit organization.
When Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers began presenting their defense on Tuesday, Sebastian remained in the center.
His first witness was Dr. George Mallouk, Sebastian’s primary care physician, who detailed his patient’s medical problems in 2016 and 2017, including gallbladder removal surgery. Mallouk acknowledged that he was unaware of the impending sexual harassment investigation, but told the jury that he was concerned about his patient’s general poor health.
“I started to wonder if this is the race for him,” Mallouk testified.
In late November 2017, Capitol Hill officials notified Sebastian Ridley-Thomas of an investigation into two allegations of sexual harassment, according to testimony and court records.
Within days, he seemed to be considering resigning, and was warned by a former aide that doing so without reason would invite speculation.
On December 5, Sebastian emailed USC School of Public Policy Director Jack Knott about the part-time teaching position he hoped would pay him $25,000 while he completed a double degree program in social work and public politics.
“’Intern-in-Residence’ is a preferable title,” Sebastian wrote, blindly copying his father. “I would like to be ready for launch in January.”
Sebastian had been in intermittent contact with USC officials about studying or working there. Months earlier, the dean of USC’s social work program had compared Sebastian to another prominent alumnus who received a full scholarship, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass. “I intend to open all doors for her, just as I did for Karen,” Dean Marilyn Flynn wrote.
In the final weeks of 2017, Flynn urged his staff to “give top priority” to Sebastian’s enrollment, even though he had not yet submitted his transcripts for admission. Meanwhile, Knott, the dean of public policy, had told Sebastian that his timeline of confirming a job to start in January was not feasible.
Flynn chimed in, telling Knott, “I think to show (Mark Ridley-Thomas) that we can deliver, it would be wise to send out the offer letter before the holidays.”
Prosecutors suggest that Flynn’s urgency came after Mark Ridley-Thomas leaned on the head of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, Dr. Jonathan Sherin. After a three-minute call on the morning of December 14, he immediately shared Sherin’s contact information with Flynn, explaining, “He’s ready to go,” with a wink emoji.
The same day, Ridley-Thomas’ aide emailed Flynn with an introduction from Bobby Cagle, then head of the county’s child welfare agency. “Supervisor Ridley-Thomas has asked me to connect the two of you and facilitate a meeting to discuss a partnership,” the aide told Flynn.
Hours later, Flynn emailed one of his assistants with Sebastian’s address to make him a job offer. “I hope we can do this,” Flynn told his assistant.
Soon, rumors were swirling in the Capitol. There was speculation that he was among “the next #MeToo to disappear” in the Legislature, as a tweet shown to the jury put it.
A public relations team that included two Sacramento-based attorneys along with two former Times employees now consulting on public relations crises (Ralph Frammolino and Glenn Bunting) exchanged emails and revised resignation and response statements with Mark Ridley- Thomas.
Ridley-Thomas emailed Bill Wong, a Sacramento political adviser, and blind-copied his son.
“I like the nuanced language in the red brackets…they are suggestive without being defensive,” Wong wrote of a draft that described Sebastian’s health issues as “persistent” rather than “significant.”
News of his resignation came on December 27, 2017. It would be months before residents of a district stretching from West Los Angeles to Culver City and Leimert Park would have a representative in the Assembly.
The next day, Bunting emailed Mark Ridley-Thomas: “Today’s key. Let’s hope the navigation is smooth.”
When a Capitol Hill blog wrote that “eyebrows have to be raised” about Sebastian’s not-so-surprising departure, Mark Ridley-Thomas seems to have considered responding.
Wong recommended keeping quiet.
“I think people will move on as long as the reality of Sebastian’s health issue is a plausible alternate narrative and our reaction to the rumours/gossip doesn’t seem overly defensive,” Wong wrote.
Wong recently told The Times that he knew about the rumors at the time of the resignation, but said: “I cannot confirm whether those allegations are true.”
Bunting told The Times that his company was hired to help announce the resignation. “As part of our due diligence, we have received independent verification of his medical conditions,” Bunting said in an email.
Sebastian’s classes began the week of January 8, 2018. A week later, he approached the deans of USC’s public policy and social work programs regarding a job: “Is there a written offer or agreement? ?”
Flynn forwarded the message to his assistant Michele Clark. “Would you jump for all this? We have to end this,” she said.
Clark testified that the tone of the email conveyed Flynn’s haste. In early March, two months after Sebastian’s resignation, the offer letter was finally mailed.
Several USC officials said they would have liked to have known about the pending sexual harassment investigation before they hired him.
“It’s really important within our school to provide good role models for our students,” testified Michael B. Nichol, USC associate vice chancellor. Nichol was so suspicious after Sebastian’s resignation that he ordered the most intense background check before he was hired as a part-time teacher. Nothing derogatory was uncovered, he said.
When Sebastian resigned, he claimed that he had just had his fifth surgery that year, and that his doctors told him he needed “an extended period of time to recover.”
Those two claims have come under scrutiny at trial.
Asked if there were five surgeries in 2017 on Sebastian’s medical record, FBI Special Agent Brian Adkins testified: “I don’t think so,” adding, “It depends on your definition of surgery.”
Adkins said the final surgery was elective and was performed on Dec. 18, around the time attorneys for the state tried to question Ridley-Thomas in the sexual harassment investigation.
The defense introduced Mallouk, Sebastian’s doctor, who said he helped coordinate procedures in 2017, including removal of his gallbladder, two procedures related to draining an abscess and two related to a painful gastrointestinal wound.
Sebastián, he said, was stressed by work and his wounds would not heal.
“Were you worried about Sebastian’s health?” said defense attorney Galia Amram. Yes, said the doctor.
“Did you recommend that I look for a new line of work?” the lawyer asked. “I did,” Mallouk replied.
Under cross-examination, the assistant US attorney. Lindsey Dotson asked where in Sebastian’s 800-page medical file was a recommendation for him to resign.
“I’m not aware that it’s there,” Mallouk replied.
Dotson pressed on, asking if he knew his patient was seeking admission to a dual degree program at USC, launching a consulting and nonprofit company, and looking for a job as a professor.
“I wasn’t aware,” the doctor said.