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Lawyers make opening statements in Mark Ridley-Thomas corruption trial

The criminal trial of suspended Los Angeles city councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas began Wednesday as the former political power broker faces charges of conspiring to hand out USC contracts in exchange for a scholarship and job for his son.

Ridley-Thomas, 68, who served on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors from 2008 to 2020, is charged with conspiracy, bribery, and honest services by mail and wire fraud stemming from a series of votes he made as supervisor. probation and mental health services. offered through the university.

In an opening statement, Asst. US attorney Thomas Rybarczyk portrayed Ridley-Thomas as a conniving political operator motivated primarily by preserving the reputation of his son and, by extension, himself.

As of late 2017, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas was under formal investigation for allegations of sexual harassment while serving as a member of the state Assembly, according to Rybarczyk. To preserve the family’s political brand, the elder Ridley-Thomas helped prevent the ongoing investigation from leaking, tendering his son’s abrupt resignation from the Legislature due to medical issues, Rybarczyk said, and then turning to USC. as a landing point.

“This case is about power, privilege and lies,” Rybarczyk told jurors.

The prosecutor promised jurors they would hear evidence that Ridley-Thomas “abuses the power of his office” and “the lies he told to cover it up.”

The trial is expected to last through early to mid-April and feature testimony from former USC administrators and faculty, a Ridley-Thomas communications consultant and officials from across the Los Angeles County bureaucracy. The testimony, along with hundreds of emails between Ridley-Thomas and his aides, his son, and the USC dean of social work at the center of the case, will shed more light on how Ridley-Thomas’s political machine operated. Thomas.

It is unclear if Ridley-Thomas will testify before the jury of eight women and four men.

After the prosecutor outlined the general contours of the alleged conspiracy, one of Ridley-Thomas’ defense attorneys, Galia Amram, pushed the idea that the government corruption theory was riddled with loopholes and inaccurate chronology.

“You just heard a story you were asked to believe: the story of Mark Ridley-Thomas selling his vote,” Amram said.

“That didn’t happen,” he said.

Instead, Ridley-Thomas had established legitimate relationships with USC leadership, including dean of social work Marilyn Flynn and then-president CL Max Nikias. The contracts at the center of the case, Amram said, were the result of lengthy work among various assistants from Ridley-Thomas, USC and the staff of other Los Angeles County supervisors.

Amram suggested that a sloppy investigation focused on the inner workings of USC and missed the awarding of Los Angeles County contracts.

“A supervisor can’t just do whatever they want,” Amram told the jury. “A supervisor can’t just sign a contract on behalf of the county. There is a process.”

Showing a flowchart of the contracts staff work on, reviewed by county attorneys and the county chief executive, and then before the Board of Supervisors, Amram asked, “Didn’t any of this happen? Did you miss any of this?

The first witness in the case, Brenda Wiewel, testified Wednesday morning that she delivered a confidential letter to Ridley-Thomas’ office on Flynn’s behalf. The letter appears to outline the quid pro quo between Ridley-Thomas and Flynn.

Before Wiewel took the stand, Amram had said in his opening statement that the government had no idea how Ridley-Thomas or his staff saw the letter, because investigators had never interviewed anyone on the politician’s staff.

“The government made decisions about who to talk to and who not to talk to, who to ignore and who to pay attention to,” Amram said.

The result, he suggested, was a case that was full of USC misconduct but lacking in understanding of what Ridley-Thomas knew or did.

“Nothing the government told you was illegal, if it was done in good faith,” Amram said.