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Separate trials not likely in LA City Hall bribery case

City Council member Mark Ridley-Thomas claims evidence that could be presented about his co-defendant would prejudice jurors in his case.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A federal judge said Monday she would probably deny Los Angeles City Council member Mark Ridley-Thomas' request to be tried separately from co-defendant Marilyn Louise Flynn, a former USC administrator, on bribery and fraud charges.

"I will very likely deny the motion to sever," U.S. District Judge Dale Fischer said in court, though she ordered federal prosecutors to file a supplemental brief to help her write her ruling. "It would be easier," she said, "if I didn’t have to do the work of the lawyers."

This past October, authorities indicted Ridley-Thomas and Flynn on 20 criminal counts relating to a bribery scheme in which the former county supervisor is suspected of agreeing to throw his support behind granting various county contracts to USC's School of Social Work, which Flynn was the dean of, in exchange for a series of favors for Ridley-Thomas' son Sebastian. The younger Ridley-Thomas, a former member of the state Assembly who resigned after being accused of sexual harassment, was allegedly given tuition-free admission to the school, a paid professorship, and a mechanism to funnel his father's campaign funds through the university and into a nonprofit the son controlled.

According to the indictment, Ridley-Thomas and Flynn took steps “to disguise, conceal, and cover up the bribes, kickbacks, and other benefits" received by the Ridley-Thomases.

Both defendants have pleaded not guilty.

Last month, Ridley-Thomas filed a motion to sever his case from Flynn's, arguing "critical pieces of the government’s evidence relating to Ms. Flynn are not admissible against Mr. Ridley- Thomas; moreover, admitting the evidence in a joint trial would create an incurable risk of prejudice."

In particular, Ridley-Thomas' lawyers say statements made by Flynn to a third party will incriminate the longtime local politician. While the evidence would be admissible in trying Flynn, it would be hearsay in the case against Ridley-Thomas, the lawyers argue.

Prosecutors opposed the motion to sever, arguing "all of the statements are admissible at any trial against defendant Ridley-Thomas because they are co*-conspirator statements made during and in furtherance of the defendants’ conspiracy."

But the prosecutors' brief annoyed Fischer, saying it failed to make the case that Ridley-Thomas was part of the conspiracy.

"I did the work and looked at indictment myself," she said Monday. "And then I thought, 'I wonder why the government didn’t assist me in this regard?'"

But she added: "I don’t have a significant doubt that they’ll be able to establish, at least by a preponderance of evidence, that this case should not be severed."

Also on Monday, Fischer set the trial date for Nov. 15.

She also admonished both parties for their heavily redacted briefs. While prosecutors pointed to an ongoing investigation, Fischer ordered them to reevaluate the protective order "so you can file these documents with less redactions. If there's still things that need to be redacted that’s fine, but less is better."

Ridley-Thomas, who was serving a third and final term as City Council member when he was indicted, was suspended from the council by his colleagues. His seat is being temporarily filled by former Councilman Herb Wesson. Last week, California Attorney General Rob Bonta greenlighted a lawsuit by a group supporting Ridley-Thomas to remove Wesson, who has already served his maximum three terms allowed, and to reinstate Ridley-Thomas.

One of Ridley-Thomas' former colleagues on the City Council, Jose Huizar, is also awaiting trial. First indicted in July 2020, Huizar faces a slew of charges including racketeering, bribery and money laundering. His trial is currently scheduled for February 2023.

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