Ridley-Thomas’ attorneys formally appeal conviction

Wave Wire Services

PASADENA — Former elected official Mark Ridley-Thomas has asked a federal appeals court to reverse his fraud and bribery convictions for voting in support of county contracts that would favor USC while accepting benefits for his son from the university — or grant a new trial, and is waiting to see if a hearing will be scheduled.

The appeal brief was filed with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena, setting the stage for a hearing before a three-judge appellate panel that could take place within the year.

Ridley-Thomas, 69, was sentenced to three years and six months in federal prison for his March 30 convictions 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.

Jurors, who reached their verdicts on their fifth day of deliberations in Los Angeles federal court, acquitted him of a dozen fraud counts. U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer subsequently granted the longtime politician’s bid for bail pending appeal.

Defense lawyers contend that the 9th Circuit must either reverse the convictions or grant a new trial based on arguments made in the brief.

“Dr. Mark Ridley-Thomas is not guilty of either federal-programs bribery or honest services fraud,” attorney Paul Watford said. “The government’s prosecution of Dr. Ridley-Thomas involved none of the hallmarks of traditional bribery: no private enrichment, no intent to be influenced and no deception material to the would-be victims. His convictions cannot stand.”

Among other things, lawyers for Ridley-Thomas argue that the process of selecting jurors was flawed because government attorneys allegedly acted in a discriminatory manner by using two peremptory strikes to eliminate all Black women from the jury.

Defense attorneys also maintain there was no evidence of a “quid pro quo” arrangement between Ridley-Thomas and Marilyn Flynn, a former head of the USC School of Social Work, who pleaded guilty to a bribery charge in the case. 

The defense insists there was no showing that Ridley-Thomas performed “an official act” while on the Board of Supervisors in favor of an expansion of 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 appeal challenges the honest services fraud counts on the grounds that the government failed to prove that Ridley-Thomas engaged in deception that was material to his constituents. At trial, the government argued that Ridley-Thomas deceived USC, but fraud on the public was not shown, according to the appellate attorneys.

The government’s theory is not only unprecedented :but also risks turning ordinary exchanges critical to representative government — from ribbon-cutting ceremonies to honorary degrees — into grounds for federal prosecution. Unless overturned, this decision would have a chilling impact on routine government operation,” Ridley-Thomas’ attorneys wrote.

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined comment.

Flynn, an 84-year-old former dean of the social work school at USC who pleaded guilty to bribing Ridley-Thomas, was sentenced to 18 months home confinement and ordered to pay a $150,000 fine.

Federal prosecutors based their case on a long string of emails and letters they say showed that Ridley-Thomas “used his publicly provided privileges to monetize his elected office and demand benefits for his son,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Evidence showed that $100,000 from Ridley-Thomas’ campaign committee account was quietly funneled through USC to a nonprofit his son Sebastian was spearheading called Policy, Research & Practice. Prosecutors said Flynn arranged the transfer to please Ridley-Thomas.

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

“The entire community has been victimized by the defendant’s crimes,” Fischer said during the sentencing hearing, adding that Ridley-Thomas “has committed serious crimes, has not accepted responsibility and has shown no remorse.”