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Veteran LA politician Mark Ridley-Thomas found guilty of bribery

The jury found the suspended City Council member guilty of conspiracy, bribery and several counts of honest services fraud.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Mark Ridley-Thomas, a longtime LA political leader, was found guilty of bribery for soliciting favors for his son from the University of Southern California in exchange for helping the university's School of Social Work get contracts from LA County when he served as a county supervisor.

A federal jury in downtown LA on Thursday found Ridley-Thomas 68, guilty of bribery and conspiracy as well as several counts of honest services wire fraud. U.S. District Judge Dale Fischer set a sentencing date for Aug. 14.

Ridley-Thomas' attorneys declined to comment on the verdict.

Prosecutors with the U.S. attorney's office in LA accused Ridley-Thomas of scheming in 2017 and 2018, while he served on the county Board of Supervisors, with the the former dean of the USC School of Social Work to get a prestigious position for his son Sebastian. According to the prosecution, he wanted to deflect attention from his son's abrupt resignation from the California Assembly in 2017, claiming health issues, 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.

 “When elected leaders engage in acts of corruption, our community suffers immense damage," U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada said in a statement. "Ridley-Thomas engaged in a corrupt conspiracy with a university dean to steer taxpayer-funded contracts to the school in exchange for benefits for his son. Today’s verdict sends a clear message to public officials that my office will vigorously investigate and prosecute those who abuse their power and thereby breach the public trust.”

There was no need to bribe Ridley-Thomas, a veteran politician who has spent over 30 years in elected office, to support probation reform and other programs to help LA's underserved communities because he had been doing that all his career, one of his attorneys told the jury at the close of his trial.

"He was a leader in probation reform," attorney Daralyn Durie said last week in in her closing argument. "It was consistent with his longstanding legislative agenda."

The three Board of Supervisors agenda items he supported in 2017 and 2018, which prosecutors said benefitted the USC's School of Social Work, were uncontroversial and passed without dissent, Durie said.

The jury returned guilty verdicts on one count of bribery, one count of conspiracy, one count of honest services mail fraud, and four counts of honest services wire fraud. The maximum statutory sentence for each of the fraud counts is 20 years in prison, though it's highly unlikely that the judge will impose a sentence even close to that.

Ridley-Thomas won acquittal on one additional count of honest service mail fraud and another 11 counts of honest services wire fraud.

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.

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 suspended 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 FBI. 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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