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Longtime LA politician Mark Ridley-Thomas sentenced to 3 1/2 years for bribery

In March, a jury found Ridley-Thomas guilty of bribery for soliciting favors for his son from the University of Southern California.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A federal judge sentenced longtime local politician Mark Ridley-Thomas to 3 1/2 years in prison on Monday.

Before the sentence was handed down, Ridley-Thomas addressed the court for the first time. He said that while he did not believe his actions crossed over the line into illegal activity, "the very perception that I deviated from proper conduct in this matter is truly distressing as well as harmful, and I deeply regret it."

In March, a jury found Ridley-Thomas guilty of bribery for soliciting favors for his son, also a former lawmaker, from the dean of the University of Southern California's School of Social Work, in exchange for helping secure LA County contracts for the school.

Ridley-Thomas, 68, served as the executive director for a civil rights nonprofit group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles, for a decade before being elected to the LA City Council. Forced out by term limits, he jumped over to the state Assembly in 2002, and then moved to the state Senate. He served as LA County Supervisor from 2008 to 2020, during which time the bribery took place. After the city relaxed its term limits to 12 years — and the county instituted its own limits on holding public office — Ridley-Thomas hopped back to the City Council. By then, he had a large political base and was widely believed to be planning a run for mayor before he was indicted in 2021.

His son, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, was also elected to the state Assembly in 2013, at just 26 years old. But he was forced to resign in 2017 after being accused of sexual harassment, although the official cause of his departure was poor health.

In exchange for county contracts steered toward USC's School of Social Work, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas was to receive admission and a full scholarship to the school's master's program, as well as a paid professorship. The dean also agreed to help filter campaign money controlled by the elder Ridley-Thomas through the school and into a nonprofit to be controlled by Sebastian.

The dean, Marilyn Flynn, pleaded guilty to one count of bribery and was sentenced to three years of probation. But Ridley-Thomas maintained his innocence and the case proceeded to trial.

While Ridley-Thomas' crimes could be interpreted as a loving father's effort to help his beleaguered son, federal prosecutors argued the politician's actions were self-serving and driven by the desire to shield himself from scandal.

"This was a shakedown," U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada wrote in a sentencing memo this month. "Defendant was a career politician whose power, livelihood and stature were tied to his elected office, which, in turn, rested on his reputation. Beyond that, defendant had grand aspirations of running for the open seat for mayor of Los Angeles in 2022. A scandal for the Ridley-Thomas political brand threatened it all."

Estrada said that getting his son a respectable position at USC would help quiet the scandal and keep everyone happy. According to the U.S. attorney, the behavior was far from aberrant, and Ridley-Thomas had engaged in "other pay-to-play conduct." His crimes "were borne not of desperation or financial hardship, but of arrogance, privilege and boundless political ambition," Estrada wrote.

The prosecutor asked the judge for a sentence of six years in prison.

In their own sentencing memo, Ridley-Thomas's lawyers played down the nature of his client's actions and argued for a far more lenient sentence — 21 months of a "non-incarceratory term of probation," including home confinement and community service.

"This is not the prototypical corruption case," the attorneys wrote. "No lavish Las Vegas trips. No cash in a paper bag. No illegal contributions from a wealthy donor. No money that Dr. Ridley-Thomas received."

The lawyers added: "The money at issue — a $100,000 donation from Dr. Ridley-Thomas’ ballot committee account — went to fund a nonprofit devoted to ensuring that the voice of African-American voters would be represented in political polling. The value of the bribe, and whether it even had a victim, is unclear."

Speaking before she handed down the sentence, U.S. District Judge Dale Fischer said the "entire community has been victimized" by Mark Ridley-Thomas' crimes, which she called "serious," and noted that he had not shown any remorse. She sentenced Ridley-Thomas to 42 months in prison, and ordered him to pay a $30,000 fine. Ridley-Thomas must surrender himself by Nov. 13.

After the sentencing, Ridley-Thomas' attorney, Galia Amran, said that while she respected the judge and the jury, there were "significant legal issues that need to be addressed on appeal."

At a press conference after the sentence, U.S. Attorney Estrada said that although his office had asked the judge for a lengthier sentence, "I do think that the 42-month sentence sends that clear message that no one, regardless of what power you have, is above the law."

More than 130 people wrote letters to the judge in support of Ridley-Thomas, including a former colleague on the LA County Board of Supervisors, Sheila Kuehl and radio host Tavis Smiley. Among those in attendance, inside the packed courtroom, was Cornel West, the professor and activist, who said he's known Ridley-Thomas for 43 years.

"It's a sad day," West said after the sentencing, "Mark Ridley-Thomas is one of the greatest public servants in the history of this state... he is my dear brother forever, and his integrity can not be called into question by legal proceedings."

Not everyone was so supportive. Former LA City Councilman and ex-police chief Bernard Parks, a one-time rival of Ridley-Thomas, wrote his own letter to the judge, arguing that six years was "too lenient" and asked the judge to impose "the highest penalty that [Ridley-Thomas'] crimes allow."

Ridley-Thomas is just one in a series of City Council members charged with public corruption. Both Mitch Englander and Jose Huizar pleaded guilty to federal charges and were sentenced to prison. More recently, sitting Councilman Curren Price was charged by the LA county district attorney with embezzlement and perjury.

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Categories / Criminal, Politics, Regional

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