'Power, privilege and lies': Ridley-Thomas trial examines alleged corruption at USC, county
At the start of the corruption trial of suspended Los Angeles City Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas, jurors on Wednesday heard conflicting portraits of the onetime power broker.
His defense attorneys cast Ridley-Thomas as a lifelong public servant who represented the poorest communities of L.A. County and relied on USC, the largest private employer in his district, to help meet the social and health needs of his most vulnerable constituents.
But to federal prosecutors, Ridley-Thomas was a conniving operator eager to "monetize" his position and conceal a sexual harassment investigation into his son, Sebastian, then a state Assembly member. To preserve the family’s political brand, the elder Ridley-Thomas helped engineer his son's abrupt resignation from the Legislature, supposedly for medical reasons, and squeezed USC for favors to benefit his son, including a professorship and a scholarship, they say. Prosecutors allege he also routed $100,000 through USC's social work school to boost his son's nonprofit.
In exchange, prosecutors contend, Ridley-Thomas steered county contracts to USC's financially troubled social work school as part of a corrupt scheme with its then-dean, Marilyn Flynn.
“This case is about power, privilege and lies,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Thomas Rybarczyk told jurors during his opening statement. He promised that during the next month of trial, they would see and hear testimony of Ridley-Thomas “abusing the power of his office" and “the lies he told to cover it up.”
Wearing a dark suit and burgundy tie, Ridley-Thomas, 68, watched quietly behind black frame glasses, occasionally whispering to his legal team. His wife, Avis, sat in the front row, while friends and supporters filled some of the courtroom's pews.
Ridley-Thomas is defending against a 19-count indictment that accuses him of bribery, conspiracy, and honest services mail and wire fraud. If convicted, the charges carry up to decades in prison.
The accusations in the case stem from his time on L.A. County's Board of Supervisors, when he was one of five people that oversee a $30-billion annual budget and vote on contracts for child welfare, mental health and other public services. The alleged scheme centers on votes Ridley-Thomas made on contracts and agreements related to the Department of Children and Family Services; training programs for probation employees; and remote mental health treatment for at-risk youths, among others.
Ridley-Thomas' defense attorney, Galia Amram, leaned into the complexities of being a county supervisor as she flatly denied the elaborate corruption alleged by prosecutors.
“You just heard a story that you were asked to believe — the story of Mark Ridley-Thomas selling his vote," Amram said in her opening statement. “That did not happen."
Instead, she said, Ridley-Thomas had established legitimate partnerships with USC leaders long before any alleged conspiracy, including with Flynn and then-President C.L. Max Nikias. The contracts at the center of the case, Amram said, were the result of complicated and tedious work among various Ridley-Thomas aides, USC and the staff of other L.A. County offices.
Amram suggested that a sloppy investigation had dwelled on the inner workings of USC while neglecting to understand the nuances and processes of the county's vast bureaucracy.
“A supervisor cannot just do whatever they want,” Amram told the jury. “A supervisor cannot just sign a contract on behalf of the county. There’s a process.”
Showing a flowchart of contracts being reviewed by staff, lawyers and the county chief executive before going to the Board of Supervisors, Amram asked jurors to consider: “Did any of this not happen? Was any of this skipped over?”
The trial is expected to last until early to mid-April and feature testimony from former USC administrators and professors, political consultants to Ridley-Thomas and officials from across L.A. County. It’s unclear whether Ridley-Thomas will testify before the jury of eight women and four men.
One of the main witnesses for the prosecution, John Clapp, testified Wednesday afternoon about the admission of Sebastian Ridley-Thomas to USC's social work program.
Flynn, the dean, had made the decision to admit Sebastian and award him a scholarship, but the younger Ridley-Thomas had "never completed the application or sent his transcripts," Clapp wrote in an email shown to jurors. Such an occurrence was without precedent, Clapp testified.
Clapp, who was the second-in-command of the social work school, was shown a letter to Sebastian Ridley-Thomas confirming his hiring. Despite the letter stating that faculty had recommended hiring Sebastian, Clapp testified, "I don't believe any of the faculty were aware of this."
"Was that unusual?" asked Assistant U.S. Atty. Lindsey Dotson.
"Yes," Clapp replied.
Later in the spring of 2018, Flynn pushed to get a remote mental health contract amended in a way that would provide $8 million a year in revenue. Clapp said that at one point, Flynn told him "good news": The contract would be secured.
"She said something to the effect of, 'but I had to do a little favor to get it,'" Clapp testified. "She winked at me at the end."
Earlier Wednesday morning, former USC administrator Brenda Wiewel said she delivered a confidential letter to Ridley-Thomas’ office on Flynn's behalf in 2017. To prosecutors, the letter outlines the crux of a quid pro quo between the dean and the lawmaker at a time when Flynn needed government contracts to prop up the financially troubled social work school.
"The letter spelled our her agreement with the defendant," Rybarczyk said.
But Ridley-Thomas' defense attorney countered in her opening statement that the letter was proof of something else: that the government had no inkling of how the lawmaker or his staff handled the letter, because no one on the politician’s staff had ever been interviewed by investigators.
“The government made choices about who to talk to and who not to talk to, who to ignore and who to pay attention to,” Amram said.
The outcome, she suggested, was a case that was heavy on misconduct by USC, with scant understanding of Ridley-Thomas' side or his intent.
“Nothing the government told you was illegal — if it was done in good faith,” Amram said.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.