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LA political icon Mark Ridley-Thomas goes on trial in bribery case

The veteran politician is among a number of high-profile LA public servants ensnared in federal corruption investigations.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Mark Ridley-Thomas, a political veteran who during more than 30 years as an elected official has served on the LA City Council, the LA County Board of Supervisors, and the California Assembly and Senate, went on trial on charges he sold his vote to safeguard his family's "political brand."

Federal prosecutors accuse Ridley-Thomas, 68, of scheming as an LA county supervisor in 2017 and 2018 with the the former dean of the University of Southern California's School of Social Work. Ridley-Thomas stands accused of seeking a prestigious position for his son Sebastian to deflect attention from his son's abrupt resignation from the Assembly in 2017, claiming health issues but amid a sexual harassment investigation into staffers' complaints revealed later by The Los Angeles Times.

In exchange for Ridley-Thomas's support in getting the School of Social Work lucrative contracts with the county, dean Marilyn Flynn provided Sebastian Ridley-Thomas with admission to the school's master's program in 2018 and a full-ride scholarship to the private university — a more than $100,000 benefit — according to the government, as well as a paid professorship to teach at USC while he was a student.

On top of that, prosecutors say the school secretly funneled $100,000 from Ridley-Thomas's political committee to his son's nonprofit initiative to make it appear as if the university rather than his father was the generous benefactor of Sebastian Ridley-Thomas's nonprofit.

"Time and time again, the defendant monetized the power of his office," Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Rybarczyk told jurors Wednesday morning in the government's opening statement. "He solicited a number of benefits to help his son and rescue the family legacy."

As a member of the five-member County Board of Supervisors — which Rybarczyk called the "kings and queens of Los Angeles" — Rybarczyk said Ridley-Thomas shared control of the county's more than $30 billion annual budget and he dangled his power and influence in front of Flynn to make her do his bidding.

Flynn pleaded guilty in the bribery scheme this past September. According to the government, she revealed her secret side deals with Ridley-Thomas to the school's vice dean when she was lost her position in 2018. Because the arrangement was so unusual and extreme, Rybarczyk said, the vice dean ran it up the chain of command at USC and the university alerted the FBI.

When Ridley-Thomas reached out the dean in 2017 for help putting his son on a new career path, Flynn — who had been dean of USC's Social Work School for more than two decades — was facing crises, including multimillion-dollar budget deficit, of her own. To salvage her position and reputation within the field of social work, the government claims, she needed lucrative county contracts for the school.

In a confidential and hand-delivered letter to Ridley-Thomas's office in August 2017, Flynn stipulated what help she was looking for from the county supervisor, including better terms for a telehealth contract with the country, under which the school's students provided mental health services for children referred to them by the county.

In addition to admission and a full scholarship, plus the paid professorship for his son, Ridley-Thomas also wanted the school to serve as a conduit to help fund Sebastian's newly created nonprofit called Policy, Research & Practice Initiative, the government claims.

He was keen to use this surreptitious way to transfer the money because an earlier attempt in 2017 to donate $100,000 from his committee to the African-American Civic Engagement Project, a nonprofit which Ridley-Thomas wanted to put his son in charge of, backfired when the fiscal sponsor of that nonprofit was uncomfortable with the "optics" of that arrangement and wouldn't go along with it.

After that setback, Ridley-Thomas and his son created the new nonprofit and Ridley-Thomas "donated" $100,000 from his campaign account to USC's School of Social Work, purportedly for the school's good work in the community, while Flynn arranged a simultaneous donation from USC to Sebastian's new nonprofit through its fiscal sponsor United Way of California. Neither USC or United Way knew of the secret arrangement.

In its opening, the defense rebuked accusations he had sold his vote and emphasized that nothing he had done was in itself illegal as long as it was done in good faith.

Ridley-Thomas and the USC dean had worked together professionally since 2014 and he had publicly supported the school's telehealth contract with the county years before his son got admitted to the Social Work School, Ridley-Thomas' attorney Galia Amram told the jury.

"This whole case is about why," Amram said. "Why did Mark Ridley-Thomas support these items before the Board of Supervisors."

The telehealth contract amendment that the board approved in 2018, which provided better reimbursement per patient as well as more patients for the school services, was approved by all five supervisors and Ridley-Thomas had issued a press release to show his support when the initial contract was signed in 2016, Amram said.

The other two agenda items the government claims Ridley-Thomas voted on in exchange for assistance for his son, were before the board of supervisors in 2017, prior to Sebastian's abrupt resignation from the Assembly. One of these motions pertained to a new reentry center for released inmates where USC could provide services, which was also a project that Ridley-Thomas had been working on previously, according to Amram.

The other motion, for a study to look into the possibility of a "probation university" for probation officers to take classes at USC's and other universities' social work schools, was introduced by another county supervisor and Ridley-Thomas simply voted in favor of it, the lawyer said.

Ridley-Thomas was the executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles for 10 years before he first was elected to the city council in 1991, representing the city's Eighth District in South LA. After almost 12 years on the city council, Ridley-Thomas spend six years in Sacramento, first in the state assembly and then in the senate.

In 2008, he became the first Black man to be elected to LA County Board of Supervisors where he served 12 years. Ridley-Thomas returned to the City Council in 2021 but was expelled last year following his indictment.

The veteran politician is one of a number of high-profile LA politicians and public servants ensnared in corruption investigations by the U.S. Attorney's Office in LA. This year, former City Council member José Huizar agreed to plead guilty rather than go on trial on charges of soliciting large bribes and other favors from real estate developers hoping to build ambitious projects in downtown LA.

Former deputy LA Mayor Raymond Chan is currently on trial as well on charges related to the widespread corruption and racketeering scheme led by Huizar ran from City Hall.

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