Ridley-Thomas supporters remain defiant after sentencing

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By Ray Richardson

Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — Support for Mark Ridley-Thomas, one of the more revered public officials in the Los Angeles Black community, remains strong and defiant in the aftermath of the 42-month sentence he received on Aug. 28 for his conviction on bribery, conspiracy and wire fraud charges.

“For those of us who have been walking with him the past 20 months, our minds have not changed about him,” Rev. Norman Johnson, pastor of First New Christian Fellowship Baptist Church, said of Ridley-Thomas. “His 30-year history of leadership and work should not be negated because of what happened in the courtroom.”

Johnson was among more than 100 supporters who filled a downtown courtroom with the hope that U.S. District Judge Dale Fischer would show leniency for Ridley-Thomas.

The only form of compassion Fischer demonstrated was reducing the prosecution’s recommended six-year sentence to three and a half years — with three years of probation tacked on upon Ridley-Thomas’ release from prison. Ridley-Thomas is scheduled to report to prison on Nov. 13.

“I thought he would just get probation,” said Hildred Brown, a longtime friend of Ridley-Thomas and owner of Earle’s On Crenshaw restaurant. “The judge seemed upset that this strong, powerful Black man didn’t say to her that he was sorry. The money involved didn’t go to his pockets. It went to a charitable cause.”

Brown was also in the courtroom when Fischer handed down her sentence. She and several supporters shed tears after Fishcer made her ruling.

Ridley-Thomas, 68, is planning to appeal his sentence to the U.S. Court Of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He has 60 days to file his appeal.

A source close to Ridley-Thomas said the former city councilman, county supervisor and state legislator is moving quickly to put together a new legal team to handle the appeal process.

“He’s got multiple options for new legal assistance,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Ridley-Thomas was found guilty in June of seven felony counts of bribery, conspiracy and mail and wire fraud in connection to an alleged scheme involving the USC School of Social Work when he was a member of the county Board of Supervisors.

Prosecutors accused Ridley-Thomas of funneling $100,000 to Marilyn Flynn when she was dean of USC’s School of Social Work. Prosecutors claim Ridley-Thomas asked Flynn to “donate” the money to a charitable organization run by his son, Sebastian.

In exchange for Flynn’s cooperation with Ridley-Thomas’ son, prosecutors allege that Ridley-Thomas voted to approve a county contract that the School of Social Work needed to fund a program with USC’s Department of Mental Health.

Flynn and Ridley-Thomas denied any wrongdoing, but Flynn accepted a plea agreement in exchange for testimony against Ridley-Thomas. Flynn was sentenced to probation and house arrest for three years.

Ridley-Thomas was convicted March 30 on single counts of conspiracy, bribery, honest services mail fraud and four counts of honest services wire fraud. Jurors, who reached their verdicts on their fifth day of deliberations in Los Angeles federal court, acquitted him of a dozen fraud counts.

“It’s an unfortunate reality, but Black politicians can’t do what white politicians do,” said Sameer Shujaa, 43, a barber shop owner in the 10th District. “I didn’t expect Ridley-Thomas to get a fair sentence. He got Black folks treatment.”

More than 150 letters in support of Ridley-Thomas were sent to Judge Fischer in the weeks leading up to her sentencing decision. Although Fischer acknowledged the overwhelming support for Ridley-Thomas and his high regard in the Black community, she told the courtroom that the “entire community has been victimized by the defendant’s crimes.”

Former Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard Parks agreed with Fischer’s sentiments in a scathing letter he wrote to Fischer before the sentencing. Ridley-Thomas defeated Parks in the 2008 election for a position on the county Board of Supervisors.

“Mr. Ridley-Thomas misled his colleagues by soliciting their voting support, while failing to advise them of his corrupt behavior,” Parks wrote in his letter to Fischer. “By doing this, he led them to the brink of corruption, which cast doubt on their honesty and integrity and opened the door for their constituents to believe they were involved in his schemes.”

Parks also wrote that Ridley-Thomas should face the “highest penalty his crimes allow…”

Another Ridley-Thomas detractor, Grace Yoo, who lost to Ridley-Thomas in the 2020 election for the 10th District, also sided with Fischer’s decision to send Ridley-Thomas to prison instead of offering probation.

“The three and a half year prison sentence for former Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas serves as a stark reminder that no one is above the law,” Yoo said in a statement. “Corruption erodes the trust of our community.”

Yoo is planning to run against current 10th District Councilwoman Heather Hutt in the 2024 election.

Author and community activist Earl Ofari Hutchinson said Ridley-Thomas will leave a unique legacy on South Los Angeles.

“[His] legacy will continue to be much disputed within and without Los Angeles Black community and among his constituents,” Hutchinson said. “history will mark him as both someone who broke the law and abused his office and at the same time someone who was a strong advocate for social justice and Black political empowerment. It’s a both a tragic and unique legacy.”

Ridley-Thomas was suspended from his role as 10th District councilman in October 2021 when the federal indictment was announced against him and Flynn. Supporters were unsuccessful in legal challenges to restore Ridley-Thomas to the position while he defended himself against the charges.

Since the sentencing, support for Ridley-Thomas appears to be surging. Johnson, a member of the South LA Clergy of Public Accountability, a group of about 30 local pastors, said the group is meeting Aug. 31 to discuss plans for a public show of support for Ridley-Thomas.

“Mark Ridley-Thomas has done so many things for our community,” said Rev. William Smart, president of the Southern California Christian Leadership Conference and a member of the South LA Clergy of Public Accountability. “He’s a powerful African-American man with good values. It’s a shame a jury and a judge are ravaging his life.”

Ridley-Thomas maintained his innocence during the sentencing but apologized to his family and supporters for the “pain” his actions may have caused.

“You hate to see a strong Black man go down like this,” said Ken Baker, a stock broker living in West Los Angeles.

City News Service contributed to this story.

Ray Richardson is a contributing writer for The Wave. He can be reached at rayrich55@gmail.com.


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