LOS ANGELES (CN) — There was no need to bribe Mark Ridley-Thomas, a veteran politician who has spent over 30 years in elected office, to support probation reform or other programs to help LA's underserved communities because he had been doing that all his career, a lawyer for the former LA County supervisor said at the close of his trial.
"He was a leader in probation reform," Daralyn Durie, one of Ridley-Thomas's attorneys told jurors Thursday afternoon in her closing argument. "It was consistent with his longstanding legislative agenda."
The three County Board agenda items he supported in 2017 and 2018, which federal prosecutors allege he did as part of an illegal scheme to benefit the University of Southern California's School of Social Work in exchange for help from the school's dean to get his son admitted to its master's program with a full scholarship as well as a paid professorship, were uncontroversial and passed without dissent, Durie said.
"There's no evidence that he pressured anyone," the attorney said, referring to a proposal to explore the possibility of a so-called probation university whereby county probation officers would receive training at social work departments at local universities, including USC. "Every single supervisor voted for it because it made sense."
Ridley-Thomas, 68, is charged with conspiracy, bribery, and multiple counts of honest services mail and wire fraud. The Justice Department alleges that his son, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, who was a member of the California Assembly at the time, had become the subject of a sexual harassment investigation in 2017, and Ridley-Thomas started looking at a face-saving way to get his son out of the Assembly rather than becoming the next prominent #MeToo culprit.
To that end, Ridley-Thomas reached out to Dean Marilyn Flynn of USC's School of Social Work in May of 2017, according to the government, to solicit her help to get his son admitted as a graduate student. As a member of the five-member County Board of Supervisors, sometimes referred to as the kings and queens of LA because of their control of the $30-billion county budget, Ridley-Thomas used his power to entice Flynn with county contracts for her financially troubled school to get his son the VIP treatment, the prosecution alleges.
An email Flynn sent the following month to the university's provost office appears to support the government's theory that Flynn was quick to do Ridley-Thomas's bidding because it reads "full scholarship for our funds," presumably evidence that in exchange for county contracts for the school, Sebastian would receive a full scholarship to attend the master's program.
Durie tried to undermine that inference by telling the jury that the dean, who was close to 80 at the time, was a poor typist and made a typo — the email was supposed to say "from," not "for," our funds, meaning that the scholarship money would come from the school's funds, as it eventually did. That, Durie said, was reasonable doubt that there was a quid pro quo for county contracts in exchange for Sebastian's scholarship.
Flynn, who was ousted from the USC school in 2018 after part of her arrangement with Ridley-Thomas was revealed, agreed to plead guilty last year to bribery rather than to go on trial. She wasn't called to testify by the government.
Under her plea agreement, Flynn specifically admitted that at Ridley-Thomas's request in April 2018, she agreed to have USC serve as a conduit for a $100,000 payment from Ridley-Thomas' campaign account to the School of Social Work and to then facilitate a nearly simultaneous $100,000 payment from USC to the United Ways of California for the benefit of the Policy, Research & Practice Initiative, a new nonprofit initiative led by Sebastian Ridley-Thomas.
In exchange, Ridley-Thomas allegedly facilitated a meeting for Flynn with an LA County official to discuss an amendment to an existing contract between the county's Department of Mental Health and the School of Social Work for USC Telehealth services provided by the school's students to patients referred to them by the county.
Although the financial transactions weren't necessarily illegal, they violated USC's internal rules and they came on top of the USC admission, full scholarship and paid professor of practice position that Flynn had already provided for the younger Ridley-Thomas.
After the money has been transferred in early May 2018, Ridley-Thomas thanked Flynn in an email for her help and she responded "This was easy. Sort of."
"She's moving mountains," for Ridley-Thomas, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsey Greer Dotson said in the government's closing argument. "This woman is risking her job, salary and legacy. Why would she do that?"
Ridley-Thomas and Flynn had been using "winks and nods" to move their arrangement along, according to the prosecutor, until December of 2017, when Sebastian was informed that the state Assembly's sexual harassment investigation was moving forward and that he was to be interviewed as part of that investigation. This was a "bombshell" that prompted his resignation for purported health reason and made it more urgent to get him into the USC program, Dotson said.
The nods and winks, according to Dotson, became pushes and shoves as Ridley-Thomas began a full-court press for Flynn to help his son.
Flynn in turn made it her highest priority to get Sebastian Ridley-Thomas admitted into a dual master's program with the USC School of Public Policy by January 2018, the government alleges, with a full scholarship and paid professorship, and tells the dean of the Public Policy School that they needed to get an offer letter out to him as soon as possible "in the interest of showing Mark Ridley-Thomas that we can deliver."
"Public officials do not get to monetize their public service," Dotson told the jury. "It's illegal to hold out your hand and to make anyone think that they have to pay to play."
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