By Ray Richardson
LOS ANGELES — Suspended City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas has no intentions of pursuing a plea agreement like the one made Sept. 16 by Marilyn Flynn, his co-defendant in a federal fraud case, an attorney for the embattled councilman said this week.
“Councilmember Ridley-Thomas continues to maintain his innocence regarding the misguided charges levied against him by the government,” Galia Amram, the lead attorney representing Ridley-Thomas from the law firm of Durie Tangri, said in a statement. “While Ms. Flynn accepted a plea deal, that in no way means Mr. Ridley-Thomas intends to accept a plea deal. We look forward to our day in court and clearing Councilmember Ridley-Thomas’ good name.”
Ridley-Thomas’ trial is scheduled to start Nov. 15 in U.S. Federal District Court in Los Angeles. He and Flynn, a former dean of the USC School of Social Work, were originally scheduled to be tried together before Flynn’s plea agreement.
Ridley-Thomas and Flynn were facing a 20-count federal indictment that includes allegations that Flynn funneled $100,000 to Ridley-Thomas in 2018 when he was a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
The indictment claims the alleged disbursement was in exchange for Ridley-Thomas’ support for a social work contract at USC, as well as a full tuition scholarship for Ridley-Thomas’ son, Sebastian, to attend USC’s graduate school.
Flynn, 83, pleaded guilty to bribery charges in hopes of getting a lighter sentence. She was facing up to 10 years in prison.
Flynn’s plea included an admission that she facilitated payment of the $100,000 through USC funds.
According to her plea agreement, in 2018, Flynn was trying to get an amendment to a contract between the School of Social Work and the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health involving services provided by USC Telehealth — a clinic with USC students providing online mental health and counseling services to county-referred clients.
Prosecutors said the social work school was facing a multimillion-dollar budget deficit at the time.
Flynn is scheduled to be sentenced March 20, 2023.
Before Flynn’s plea agreement, she and Ridley-Thomas had denied the allegations. Both were looking forward to contesting the indictment in court.
A source close to Ridley-Thomas indicated that the suspended 10th District councilman is “unfazed” by Flynn’s guilty plea and his “resolve has been strengthened” to prove his innocence. Ridley-Thomas could not be reached for comment.
Though Ridley-Thomas remains firm in proclaiming his innocence, the fact that Flynn will not stand trial, and that she has admitted her role in the alleged transaction, could present a stronger challenge in court for Ridley-Thomas’ defense team.
“This is probably not a good development for Ridley-Thomas’ attorneys,” said Laurie Levenson, a 35-year criminal law professor at Loyola Law School and a former federal prosecutor. “Flynn’s plea puts him right in the middle of it. Given the nature of the evidence in this case and the documentation the prosecution has, it’s going to require some pretty extraordinary explanations on the part of his defense team.”
Levenson believes it is unlikely Flynn will testify against Ridley-Thomas. Levenson said if the prosecution was planning to have Flynn appear in court, they would have included a requirement that she testify as part of the plea agreement.
“I don’t think the prosecution needs her,” Levenson said of Flynn.
Amram took exception to several details in Flynn’s plea agreement and seems prepared to use the discrepancies in court if needed.
“Ms. Flynn’s plea deal makes a number of erroneous assumptions about her conversations with Councilmember Ridley-Thomas,” Amram said in her statement. “Neither she nor the government have any basis to determine what Councilmember Ridley-Thomas understood or thought.”
There’s a belief among Ridley-Thomas supporters that Flynn’s plea agreement, which now separates the two co-defendants, represents an advantage for Ridley-Thomas. Levenson said Ridley-Thomas’ attorneys can focus more on their strategy and possibly do more damage to Flynn’s credibility.
Keeping Flynn out of the courtroom could be an advantage for the prosecution.
“If she went on the stand, she would get attacked by Ridley-Thomas’ lawyers,” Levenson said of Flynn. “The prosecution isn’t that eager to put her in that situation.”
Flynn might have been positioning herself for a plea agreement more than a month ago. Flynn and Ridley-Thomas were scheduled to be tried together beginning Aug. 9, but Flynn asked for a delay, the first sign of an apparent split in legal maneuvering between the two co-defendants.
Ridley-Thomas wanted to start the trial in August to prove his innocence as soon as possible and hopefully return to his seat in the 10th District. He also was hoping for a speedy decision to assist him getting his City Council salary restored.
Ridley-Thomas, who was suspended by the City Council on Oct. 13, 2021, has lost approximately $205,000 in pay, which is almost his entire yearly salary.
Motions to restore Ridley-Thomas’ salary were filed in August by Councilmen Curren Price (9th District) and Marqueece Harris-Dawson (8th District), but the motions are still in committee and have yet to be put to a vote.
During Ridley-Thomas’ suspension, former City Council President Herb Wesson served as interim council member for the 10th District. A restraining order forced Wesson out of the role based on term limits.
Heather Hutt was appointed by the City Council on Sept. 9 to formally represent the district through 2024 or until the outcome of Ridley-Thomas’ trial.
Ray Richardson is a contributing writer for The Wave. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.