On Thursday, March 30, a federal court jury found suspended City Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas guilty of seven of the 19 felony counts filed against him by the United States Attorney’s Office, including one count of bribery, one count of conspiracy, one count of honest services mail fraud and four counts of honest services wire fraud.
Ridley-Thomas was stoic as the verdict was read by U.S. District Judge Dale Fischer in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom packed by press and Ridley-Thomas supporters.
“Sad to say, as with most Black men, Mark Ridley-Thomas was guilty in the minds of some before he ever stepped into a downtown courtroom thanks to rampant bias and newspapers like the L.A. Times, who have been slanted in their coverage from day one,” said Pastor William Smart, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and who was among supporters in the courtroom. “Most disappointing is that an African American male of his stature can be taken down with a paucity of information in this judicial system. It’s hurtful.”
“Public officials are elected to be a voice and a vote for the people they’re paid to represent, not for their own personal gain,” said Donald Alway, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office. “Allegations of public malfeasance must and will be addressed by the FBI before further corrupt actions erode confidence in our public institutions.”
Word of the verdict led to an outpouring of emotions throughout Los Angeles for Ridley-Thomas—a powerhouse in L.A. political circles—whose decades in public service have transformed the south Los Angeles landscape from the re-opening of the Martin Luther King Jr. hospital to the Empowerment Congress and Neighborhood Council movement.
Said Mayor Karen Bass, “I believe that this is a sad day for Los Angeles,” she said. “And I feel that sadness personally. “Mark Ridley-Thomas has been a champion for our city, a civil rights activist, a thought leader and a policy maker who made real impact on this city. I worked with Mark for more than 40 years to build a more just and equitable Los Angeles.
“A dark day for south Los Angeles,” declared CNN legal commentator and KBLA Talk Radio Host Areva Martin.
“It’s devastating not just for his family but for the community,” stated City Councilmember Curren Price. “We don’t know what next steps are, but our prayers are with his family and for someone who has been a real community champion and a warrior.”
“Justice was not served today. Praying that he wins on appeal. Tragic!!!!,” noted one community resident.
“Hunting season for Black officials is always open,” said Tavis Smiley.
In a case where the lead attorney for the prosecution, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsey Dotson, acknowledged that there was no single document that laid out the conspiracy, and the testimony of the prosecution’s key witness was riddled with holes by defense attorneys, the decision appears to have boiled down to emails left to the interpretation of a 12-member jury with two black male jurors. Two Black women had been previously dismissed from the jury panel during the selection process.
While long deliberations usually benefit defendants, in this case the timing seemed to have been attributed to confusion over what the jury was to decide. The jury sent 11 notes to the judge over the four days of deliberations in an attempt to understand 23 pages of jury instructions.
When asked by a reporter, if jury foreperson Kirsi Kilpelainen, 35, of San Luis Obispo, believed that Ridley-Thomas sold his vote, she replied:
“I honestly don’t know what that means. From the very time they mentioned it, I thought you should have used that as an argument, because I don’t understand that. If you mean did he sell his vote —as in change his vote on any of the three issues—no, I don’t think so.”
To be sure, the government’s case was flawed.
“The evidence is a joke,” said Professor, author and scholar Cornel West, who spent several days as an observer in the courtroom during the trial.
The government’s case against the veteran lawmaker is based on votes and initiatives he supported that would have had USC receiving county contracts in exchange for a $100,000 donation being funneled through the university to a United Way initiative his son was running in tandem with his work at USC, along with a full-tuition scholarship and part-time job as a professor at USC’s social work for his son. All while serving as a member of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.
Ridley-Thomas’ defense team highlighted the absence of evidence suggesting that the initiatives at the heart of the case—a Probation University, the Vermont Avenue Re-entry Center and a Telehealth Contract extension—lacked overwhelming support or were inconsistent with prior advocacy. Instead, the government’s key witness conceded that the initiatives in question had been supported by Ridley-Thomas in previous years and were at some points in collaboration with other members of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, all of whom voted unanimously to advance them.
To that end both former Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and current County of Supervisors Chair Janice Hahn, said that they were never pressured by Ridley-Thomas and were in support of the initiatives.
Defense attorneys ripped holes in the testimony of its key witness, FBI agent Brian Adkins. During a rapid-fire question and answer session between Defense Counsel Daralyn Durie and Adkins, the FBI agent was forced to admit multiple times that there was “nothing controversial” regarding the three policy initiatives. He’d uncovered no documentary evidence that anyone acted contrary to the normal processes for advancing these initiatives — neither then Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, Second District staff, other County Supervisors, their staffs, County department officials nor USC officials and advocates involved in establishing the county initiatives in question.
Adkins also testified that he was not aware of the process for bringing items to the board of supervisors, nor did he make any inquiries as to the process, and that he had never reached out to anyone in the Second District—including Ridley-Thomas—because he didn’t want to alert them to an investigation. This despite the fact that the investigation had already been widely publicized in the L.A. Times, who in fact allowed USC to look over the story and “make minor edits” prior to its publication.
The special agent also conceded that there was no evidence that Sebastian Ridley-Thomas was unqualified for admission to graduate school or to be appointed to a non-tenure track post as practitioner professor. Nor was there evidence of any campaign finance law being violated in the $100,000 contribution. Adkins also conceded that USC may have had their own motives in bringing the investigation against Ridley-Thomas, the initial letter for which was signed by Rick Caruso. Interestingly, Caruso—mulling over a run for mayor since 2011—would have potentially faced Ridley-Thomas, who was at the time considering a candidacy for the next mayoral contest.
The defense also managed to introduce into evidence the fact that the same MRT committee that made the $100,000 contribution, previously made a $250,000 contribution in 2016 without issue.
Ann Ravel, the former chair of the California Fair Political Practices Commission and a former appointee to the Federal Election Commission, testified that both Ridley-Thomas’ $100,000 donation to USC and USC’s subsequent $100,000 donation to the United Way for PRPI, the initiative run by Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, were legal.
Ravel’s testimony was, in fact, asked to be reread by the jury during its deliberations.
Dean Marilyn Flynn, named as a co-conspirator in the case, took a plea deal last year and was not called, leading many to speculate as to what kind of witness she might have made and whether or not her testimony would have worked for or against the prosecution under cross-examination.
“There could be several reasons why a defendant who pled guilty in a co-conspiracy case would not be called to testify against the remaining defendant. The most important reason would be lack of credibility,” said Mansfield Collins, an L.A. -based attorney who handles federal and state criminal defense matters.
“It is highly unusual in a co-conspiracy case that one co-conspirator doesn’t testify against the other. Clearly, the prosecution was concerned that on cross-examination by the defense attorney that her testimony against Mark Ridley-Thomas would be impeached and fall apart. If impeached on cross-examination, this would have been viewed as substantial evidence of Ridley-Thomas’ innocence that I believe would have led to a not guilty verdict. As a result of the prosecution not calling her, Ridley Thomas’ defense attorney could not cross examine her, and the jury was denied the opportunity to determine her credibility under questioning or whether she believed that Ridley-Thomas had a corrupt purpose or unlawful intent.
“She might have even testified to a different meaning for the emojis, winks and nods in the emails that were left for the jury to decipher and the prosecution to interpret.”
Many courtroom observers felt that due to the questions posed by the jury, the testimony that was re-read and the absence of any conclusive evidence, the jury would more than likely be deadlocked on the charges rather than return a seven-count conviction.
“I was beyond shocked. Mere words cannot express the gravity of the moment,” said Pastor Xavier Thompson. “I was in the courtroom every single day and I was expecting exoneration at best and at the very least, a hung jury. The legal defense team went beyond the call of duty to establish reasonable doubt, which in my mind had been established and exceeded. I just don’t understand how I heard what I heard, and the jury heard what I heard, and yet came to that conclusion”.
In fact, the conviction for many, brought more questions than answers. Many—like Cornel West—questioned the coverage of the L.A. Times.
“The way they cast the story. They’d already criminalized my brother,” West remarked.
“Because I was in there every single day, I felt something different than what was being reported”, said Dion Raymond, who covered the story for KBLA 1580. The defense said from the very beginning that they were going to show that the government was not telling the whole story. There was evidence that the government never brought forth and it made a difference. In my opinion, it more than gave rise to reasonable doubt and the credibility of the government itself. The mainstream media did not portray that. They did not discuss those things. They did not give it to the community and their readership—to have that information so that they could make those assessments themselves, which I thought that those of us in the courtroom were able to do.”
Some made note of the letter that began the initial investigation being signed by Rick Caruso and wondering why the L.A. Times hadn’t questioned his motives. There were also questions about the relations between the USC Board of Trustees and the U.S. Attorney’s Office and why questioned Tavis Smiley would USC walk this case into the U.S. Attorney’s office.
“Something somethin’ just ain’t right,” West observed.
Flynn—who pled guilty in September 2022 to one count of bribery— is scheduled for sentencing on June 26. She faces a statutory maximum sentence of 10 years in federal prison. Prosecutors have agreed, however, to recommend she satisfy her custodial term by way of home confinement and will seek a fine against her of no more than $150,000.
Ridley-Thomas is set to be sentenced on August 14. He will face a statutory maximum sentence of five years in federal prison on the conspiracy count, up to 10 years in federal prison for the bribery count, and up to 20 years in federal prison for each honest services fraud count.
In the meantime, his attorneys—from the highly regarded law firm of Morrison Foerster—are hard at work on an appeal. A “Night of Compassion for Mark Ridley-Thomas” is being set for later this month.
Said his close friend Cornel West, “It’s not just about Mark Ridley-Thomas. It’s about the services he rendered and the suffering he tried to speak to. We know what’s coming at him and are not deceived by this moment. That’s why we continue to struggle.
“This is a bump in the road. We serve a mighty God. We have faith. We continually bear witness,” West continued. “We know, of course, that folk are coming at us, trying to obstruct and trying to impede, but nothing will break our souls. We’ve got a joy that the world didn’t give us, and the world can’t take away. The brother is on the battlefield with his integrity, his love, his service and can’t nothing stop him but the God that created him.”
Statements of Jury Foreperson Kirsi Kilpelainen
“Many of the jurors believed that there was no connection between Mark and the USC things, so it came down to the $100,000. They were asking us basically to say that he was getting benefits for his son as far as admission to USC—a scholarship, a professorship— and we couldn’t agree beyond a reasonable doubt that Mark was involved in that so anything that was pertaining to emails written about that, that’s why they [those counts] were not guilty…
“What it came down to was that we were trying to find evidence for the bribery charge, but bribery was concerning programs receiving federal funds and it came down to a definition that the judge had included which was corruptly and for something to be done corruptly, there needed to be something unlawful as a means or an act and we didn’t have anything unlawful until we got to what we agreed to was the honest services wire fraud regarding the $100,000, because we had to agree on which act…and that was the one we could all agree on, so that once that became unlawful, we could take that back and fit it into the corruptly definition she had given us.
“We actually, as a jury, agreed that the donation was lawful, but the problem was it fitting the criteria for him to be guilty of honest services wire fraud.
“We went for actually a long time deliberating thinking that maybe there was a scheme; that there was dishonesty; that there was lack of transparency; but none of that could be proven to be against the law until we got to the honest services wire fraud. Once we were able to say that he was guilty of honest services wire fraud on counts 15,16, 19 and 20 considering the $100K donation to the United Way, we were using that as something unlawful to satisfy the judge’s instructions…
“And so, we agreed on basically everything for bribery except we couldn’t find anything unlawful, but once we moved on to the wire fraud and that was against the law because we found him guilty of one count of that, we went back to bribery and agreed that was unlawful means.