When a federal grand jury indicted Mark Ridley-Thomas on corruption charges, the veteran Los Angeles politician protested his innocence and vowed to fight.
There was one problem: how would he pay his lawyers?
Ridley-Thomas had few possessions other than his home and a rental in Leimert Park. The lifelong civil servant lost his income after the city council suspended him and the city controller cut off his salary and benefits. And according to city rules, he couldn’t find another job without quitting his job.
Then a network of supporters opened their wallets.
Over the 16 months since the criminal charges were revealed, these backers have helped him amass nearly $1.5 million in two defense funds and enabled him to maintain an elite legal team that has won courtroom victories for Google, Activision Blizzard and Kaiser Permanente .
Donors include former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt ($25,000); fellow LA City Councilman Curren Price ($1,000); Charles E. Blake, Presiding Bishop Emeritus of the Church of God in Christ ($10,000); Bruce Karatz, former CEO of KB Home ($10,000); and a whole host of developers, ministers, bureaucrats and lobbyists or people affiliated with lobbying firms.
Contributions range from $150 from a Thai restaurant in Windsor Hills to $75,000 from his most generous backers, producer and investor Peter Chernin and his wife, philanthropist Megan Chernin.
Carol Biondi, a longtime proponent of juvenile justice reform and the widow of former Viacom and Universal Studios chief Frank Biondi, said she “eagerly” contributed $30,000 to the Ridley-Thomas defense fund because of his “ferocious” advocacy.
“I have been his friend for more than 15 years, I believe in him, his innocence, and I am convinced that he will be acquitted,” Biondi said.
The broad support underscores the deep ties Ridley-Thomas has cultivated in the city and the high stakes for the once-powerful legislature. At a trial scheduled to begin Tuesday and run through early April, he faces decades in prison if convicted, along with the downfall of his career and a lasting stain on a legacy of advocacy for the black and brown communities in LA
“I can’t do this without your help,” Ridley-Thomas said in an email last spring asking for donations to one of his defense funds. “You know me. You know my heart. You know I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t need you right now.
Ridley-Thomas was charged with 19 charges including conspiracy, bribery and fraud as part of an alleged scheme to send Los Angeles County contracts to USC’s social work school in exchange for a host of benefits for his son, Sebastian. USC’s former dean of social work, Marilyn Flynn, was also charged in the scheme.
Ridley-Thomas stands out in his insistence on presenting his case to a jury of his peers. Two other city council colleagues accused of corruption, Mitch Englander and Jose Huizar, pleaded guilty. His co-defendant, Flynn, also pleaded guilty in September and is awaiting sentencing.
Of the more than 63,000 federal criminal cases resolved in 2021, more than 90% ended in a guilty plea, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. The data shows that the vast majority of cases that go to court end in convictions. For many, a lawsuit is a gamble not worth the risk given the likelihood of a long prison sentence and the high price of private attorneys.
And the Ridley-Thomas defense team is pricey.
Most of his time before the trial, he has relied on a team of attorneys at Durie Tangri, a boutique law firm in Silicon Valley, which has represented Genentech and other big-pocketed biotechs and defeated Novartis in the lawsuit for infringement of a drug used to treat skin cancer. Two months ago, Durie Tangri merged with San Francisco-based Morrison Foerster, one of the top law firms in the country, and more lawyers from that firm joined the Ridley-Thomas team.
Despite the significant sum Ridley-Thomas raised in his defense fund, experts said it would still only cover a fraction of his projected legal bills, which would be well into the seven figures whether he wins or loses.
Ridley-Thomas has at least six attorneys for his trial, including three firm partners, who are likely asking about $1,000 an hour — and often more. Additional Fees: Most of his attorneys are based in the San Francisco Bay Area and require hotels, meals, and transportation for a four- to six-week trial in LA
“It would cost at least a few million dollars,” said Peter Zeughauser, a Newport Beach lawyer who advises international law firms on strategy. Several LA attorneys put the price tag at $3 million to $5 million, not including the 16 months of legal work the councilman’s defense team has already put into the case.
Records from his legal defense fund show that Ridley-Thomas has already paid $765,000 to his criminal defense attorneys at Durie Tangri through the end of 2022. Between his two defense funds, more than $1 million comes from loans Ridley-Thomas made himself. The source of that money is unclear, but property records show he refinanced his home and rental property in 2022.
Experts warned that defendants like Ridley-Thomas could also rely on other sources of money, including family members, to pay lawyers. Applications for bills paid this year will not be available until the summer.
Many donors reached by The Times cited Ridley-Thomas’ work in public health and child welfare. And several supporters acknowledged knowing little about the underlying criminal case.
“I don’t know the facts. I don’t want to know facts,” said Fred Rosen, former CEO of Ticketmaster, who put in a total of $4,100 and said his relationship with Ridley-Thomas has been going on for more than 30 years. “He’s a friend and you stand by your friends when they’re in trouble.”
Thomas Safran, a Brentwood affordable housing developer who donated $6,600 to the defense funds, also said, “I don’t know the specifics of what’s going on.” But he was effusive about Ridley-Thomas, adding: “I think the world of him.”
Safran said he met Ridley-Thomas at President Obama’s inauguration in 2009, and the two sat next to each other and talked for more than an hour in frosty weather.
“I can tell he really cares. And I believe everyone is innocent until proven guilty,” Safran said.
Some donors are lobbyists or affiliated with lobbyists, including Howard Sunkin. His lobbying firm, which donated $2,500 in 2021, represents several developers and other companies doing business for the city, including the owners of Television City. Arnie Berghoff’s wife — whose company lobbies the city council for ambulance workers, waste management companies like Athens, and companies seeking contracts at Los Angeles International Airport — also gave $2,000.
Asked why she donated so much to Ridley-Thomas or if anyone asked her to, Linda Berghoff replied, “I can’t remember.” The donation, she said, came about because “I wanted to help him as a friend.”
Prominent LA attorney Patricia Glaser donated $5,000 to the defense fund. Glaser is not a lobbyist, but her Century City law firm, Glaser Weil, is registered to lobby for a variety of developers and for the owner of the Beverly Center.
“I have found Mr. Ridley-Thomas to be a dedicated public servant, and my contribution to his legal defense fund reflects my respect for him and the work he has done for the city,” Glaser said in an email.
California voters allowed politicians to raise money in defense funds in 2000 when they passed Proposition 34. The funds allowed officials to crowdsource the legal costs of defense against criminal, civil, and administrative actions.
“Government officials had said, ‘I’m being sued — I should be able to raise money for its defense,'” said Bob Stern, former general counsel to the Fair Political Practices Commission and co-author of the Political Reform Act. “It’s not a legal defense fund for murder or theft. It is for actions they have taken as a government official.
Ridley-Thomas has said he especially needed donations after then-LA City Controller Ron Galperin withdrew his pay and benefits. “Since I will not give up my seat and will turn my back on my constituents, I am prohibited from earning outside income,” he told supporters last year. “Right now I really need resources for my legal defense.”
Due to campaign finance rules, Ridley-Thomas has two defense funds. One is focused on fighting his city council suspension and loss of pay and benefits and is subject to a city-imposed contribution limit of $1,600 per person.
But his other fund, which was set up to defend against criminal charges stemming from his time as LA County supervisor, doesn’t fall under the city’s donor limits.
Under state rules, Ridley-Thomas can collect unlimited donations from people doing business for the city. That means if Ridley-Thomas is acquitted at trial, he can return to City Hall and vote on issues directly related to those same big money donors. His final term will expire in December 2024.
A Ridley-Thomas spokesperson did not respond to questions for this article.
In public, Ridley-Thomas has taken a defiant and proud stance. Last week, he appeared at a luncheon at the London Hotel in West Hollywood honoring prominent black journalists in the region and at one point hugged Mayor Karen Bass. Many in the crowd prayed for him, according to those present.
But Ridley-Thomas has described the pending case and the council’s suspension as “humiliating and humiliating” in an email to supporters last year. Among his backers are some who have had first-hand dealings with a high-profile federal prosecutor.
Karatz, the former CEO of KB Home, was convicted in 2010 of lying about backdating stock options and was later sentenced to house arrest at his Bel-Air mansion.
Karatz did not say what role his own experience with the criminal justice system played in his decision to give $10,000 to Ridley-Thomas’ defense in July. In an email to The Times, he called the amount “a small gesture of my personal appreciation for what Mark has contributed to our city.”
“It pains me to see him go through this current legal process,” Karatz wrote.