Ridley-Thomas attorneys ask judge to vacate conviction

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Wave Wire Services

LOS ANGELES — A judge heard arguments June 26 in former City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas’ bid to have his convictions on federal bribery and conspiracy charges vacated, but no ruling was forthcoming.

Attorneys for Ridley-Thomas argued that prosecutorial misconduct, misstatements of the law and other issues during the longtime Los Angeles politician’s trial ultimately deprived him of his right to a fair trial.

The 68-year-old Ridley-Thomas is facing the prospect of years in prison after being convicted March 30 on single counts of conspiracy, bribery, honest services mail fraud and four counts of honest services wire fraud, stemming from his time serving on the county Board of Supervisors. Sentencing is scheduled for Aug. 21 in downtown Los Angeles.

Prosecutors responded to defense attorneys’ arguments for acquittal and/or a new trial in court and in a 200-page filing that includes a detailed timeline of events surrounding what the U.S. Attorney’s Office calls a quid pro quo arrangement between the politician and a former head of the USC School of Social Work who pleaded guilty to bribery.

U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer declined to make an immediate ruling, saying she will issue one “as soon as I can.”

In her argument, defense attorney Galia Z. Amram said there was no evidence presented at trial showing that Ridley-Thomas actually performed “an official act” while on the Board of Supervisors in favor of an amendment to a telehealth contract with the county Department of Mental Health that prosecutors claim could have brought the social work school potentially millions of dollars in new revenue.

“The government argued over and over and over again that Mark Ridley-Thomas agreed to do an official act” for Marilyn Flynn, the ex-dean of the USC School of Social Work, by supporting the amendment, Amram said. But, the attorney added, her client did not actually vote for the amendment, which she said was placed before the board “automatically” and didn’t require a vote.

Thus, she said, there was no official act, which Amram suggested was a key requirement for honest services fraud, and so the conviction should be vacated.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsey Greer Dotson, however, countered that the government “presented far more than sufficient evidence” that Ridley-Thomas voted in favor of the contract.

“Defense counsel can argue that a vote isn’t a vote,” Dotson told the court, but evidence showed “there was agreement to perform an official act,” which was enough to support the guilty verdict.

“An official act is not just the vote,” Dotson said.

As for the guilty verdict on the conspiracy count, Amram insisted the conviction should be vacated because there was no evidence of an agreement between Ridley-Thomas and Flynn.

Dotson, though, responded that evidence proved the defendants clearly engaged in a “scheme” to benefit each other. 

Defense attorneys also pointed to what they consider to be untruths presented by FBI Special Agent Brian Adkins, the government’s chief case investigator, who spent three days on the stand touching on nearly every factual issue presented.

“Agent Adkins’ testimony was tainted by improper questioning and the government’s refusal to correct his false statements under oath,” the defense alleged in court papers. “During trial, Agent Adkins made at least three false statements during his testimony. One false statement concerned his statement that he had reviewed all 400,000 documents produced in the case.”

In court June 26, Dotson said “the agent told the absolute truth.”

Ridley-Thomas was accused of steering county contracts toward the USC social work school in exchange for contributions to a community-focused nonprofit organization run by his son, Sebastian, a former state Assemblyman. Ridley-Thomas is appealing the conviction.

A juror who spoke after the verdicts were announced said the panel found “dishonesty” in Ridley-Thomas’ actions involving the $100,000 transfer of funds that traveled from his campaign fund to USC, then to the United Ways of California, and finally to Sebastian’s organization.

Defense attorneys argue there was no bribery. The money was channeled from the father to his son’s organization in such a way to avoid the appearance of “nepotism,” Ridley-Thomas’ attorneys argued in court documents, and there was no benefit to the USC dean as a result.

“Notably, the government presented no county testimony concerning Dr. Ridley-Thomas’ support for and actions with respect to the county agenda items at issue,” defense attorneys wrote.

Jurors, who reached their verdicts on their fifth day of deliberations in Los Angeles federal court, acquitted the Southland political giant of a dozen fraud counts.

Ridley-Thomas, of South Los Angeles, vehemently denied any wrongdoing. He did not testify in his own defense, but his attorneys argued throughout the trial that nothing he did amounted to a crime.

Federal prosecutors based their case on a long string of emails and letters to bolster fraud allegations. However, defense attorney Daralyn Durie countered that nothing Ridley-Thomas did was illegal, and a series of defense witnesses testified that the “paper trail” was not what it seemed. 

Flynn, 84, of Los Feliz, pleaded guilty in September to one count of bribery and is scheduled to be sentenced on July 24.

Ridley-Thomas served on the Los Angeles City Council from 1991-2002, then served in the state Assembly and state Senate before he was elected to the powerful county Board of Supervisors in 2008, serving until 2020, when he returned to the City Council.

He was suspended from the City Council following the October 2021 federal indictment that also named Flynn as co-defendant. After the guilty verdicts, Heather Hutt was appointed as the new councilwoman from District 10.

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