A jury made up of a wide swath of Southern California began deliberating Friday morning whether to convict suspended Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas on corruption charges.
Before the panel of 12 entered the deliberation room, a federal prosecutor delivered a comprehensive rebuttal to the arguments presented by Ridley-Thomas’s defense, urging jurors to weigh the evidence “by the facts, the law and common sense” and find the guilty political veteran.
“It is not a defense that the actions taken were good for the community or that they were actions that the defendant would have taken,” the assistant US attorney said. said Michael J. Morse.
Morse described how Ridley-Thomas voted and acted in ways that benefited the USC school of social work and its former dean. “The only question for you is: Was the defendant doing these things for Marilyn Flynn so that she would do things for him?”
“The next question is: Do you think he knew that?”
Ridley-Thomas was charged with 19 counts: one count of conspiracy, one count of bribery and the remainder for honest services mail or wire fraud.
He is accused of accepting bribes from Flynn, meaning a series of benefits provided to his son, in exchange for introducing or voting on certain items on the Los Angeles County agenda and pressuring county officials to perform certain related acts. with the issuance or modification of government contracts. Each honest services mail and wire fraud charge is linked to an email or letter from FedEx sent in late 2017 or 2018 that was carried out as part of the alleged scheme.
The bribery charge charges Ridley-Thomas with accepting or intending to accept benefits from Flynn in connection with county contracts. The conspiracy charge charges Ridley-Thomas with illicitly conniving with Flynn to participate in honest services fraud and bribery.
Her co-defendant, Flynn, previously pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing, but jurors in the case do not know she was charged or pleaded guilty.
Ridley-Thomas did not testify in his defense. What his lawyers offered, Morse said in his 90-minute rebuttal argument Friday, were a series of “distractions.”
“They want to talk about everything except the defendant,” he said. Among the red herrings: vilifying the lead investigator, FBI Special Agent Brian Adkins; spewing smears about the motives of Flynn’s subordinates in sounding the alarm about his dealings with the Ridley-Thomas family; suggesting that USC had fabricated a criminal reference to Ridley-Thomas to serve an unspecified institutional agenda; and put Ridley-Thomas’ support for key county votes on the case less for his actions and more as the almost fated outcome of the Blue Ribbon Commission, a report that recommended how Los Angeles County could better serve children. at risk.
“Most of his argument was from a keyhole view,” Morse said. What Ridley-Thomas’s defense lacked was a credible explanation of the major episodes in the case, especially the $100,000 donation that was sent through USC, she said.
On Thursday, Ridley-Thomas’ attorney, Daralyn Durie, claimed the handling of the $100,000 donation was more or less Flynn’s fault: She put the money into a bank account at USC, but the outgoing money went to the non-profit organization of the politician’s son, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas. he came from another account at the university. In all of this, Durie said, her client was unaware.
“That explanation completely ignores that this was all done at the direction of the defendant,” Morse said, showing the jury the “fake” donation letter he included with his check to USC. “That’s not an explanation at all.”
Morse clearly described the beginning of the conspiracy: in May 2017, when Ridley-Thomas approaches Flynn for a phone call, leading the two to chat for 37 minutes. The next day, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas emails Flynn, to which the dean replies, “Glad to hear from you, and so quickly.”
“She is waiting for this call,” Morse told the jury. The prosecutor emphasized what Flynn stood to gain: having one of the most powerful members of the Board of Supervisors on his side.
“Flynn wasn’t the only one asking the defendant for things,” Morse said. “She needs to get to the front of the line… This is her ticket to the front of the line.”
Faced with defense assertions that there was no possibility of bribery, that the motions voted by Ridley-Thomas were uncontroversial, expected, and even inevitable, Morse asked why Flynn was pushing so hard for action: “If the cake is baked, why is she?” Are you still in the kitchen?
In the prosecution schedule, the month of December 2017 is critical. That month, Ridley-Thomas’s son Sebastian was facing a still-secret sexual harassment investigation and his father feared the damage from a #MeToo scandal in his own family, prosecutors said. They point to emails between Ridley-Thomas and his legal and public relations team that show their desperation for Sebastian to quietly walk out of the Legislature and find a prestigious landing spot.
In that month, one day stands out: December 14. That day he features Ridley-Thomas introducing Flynn to the director of the Los Angeles County department of mental health; Flynn tells his staff that Sebastian’s admission, along with a scholarship, should be “the top priority”; and an email from one of Ridley-Thomas’ aides introducing Flynn to the director of the county’s child welfare agency.
The next morning, Flynn tells a fellow USC dean to post Sebastian’s job offer before the holidays, “to show MRT we can deliver.” Morse noted that Flynn didn’t want to show “SRT,” the son, that the university could honor his part of the deal; the focus, he said, was on the father.
“It’s good to be the son of one of the five kings,” the prosecutor said, alluding to the nickname of the five-member Board of Supervisors and its control over a $30 billion budget.
Defense attorneys have repeatedly tried to highlight the absence of Los Angeles County figures in the prosecutors’ case, claiming it was evidence of an investigation that had blind spots. Morse urged jurors to weigh the weight and veracity of the testimony offered by former Ridley-Thomas employees and colleagues in Los Angeles County.
“They were either loyal to the defendant or out of the loop, or both,” Morse said, claiming they had little information or knowledge of Ridley-Thomas’s backstage communications with Flynn.
Another category of Riley-Thomas’ defense were experts, including Sebastian Ridley-Thomas’ doctor and Ann Ravel, who volunteered as a campaign finance specialist and vouched for the legality of the $100,000 donation through USC.
“Ann Ravel testified in a vacuum and it seemed like she didn’t have all the information,” Morse said. He pointed out how Ravel purported to be a vocal opponent of dark and untraceable money in politics, but later testified that it was legal for Ridley-Thomas to make a donation to USC from a voting committee and then order USC to donate money to your child’s non-profit organization, without a paper trail.
“That transaction was designed to disguise itself,” the prosecutor said. “She was here to do a job and she did it…. You don’t have to take an expert’s word for anything.”