Closing arguments are expected on Thursday, March 23, for the trial of suspended Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who faces federal corruption charges alleging he routed county contracts to USC’s social work school in exchange for benefits to his son.
Related: A guide to corruption cases in Los Angeles City Hall
According to prosecutors, Ridley-Thomas in April 2018 allegedly arranged for the former dean of the school, Marilyn Flynn, to funnel $100,000 from his campaign account through the school to a nonprofit operated by his son, Sebastian, who had recently resigned from the state Assembly amid a sexual harassment probe.
Prosecutors contend Mark Ridley-Thomas — then a member of the county Board of Supervisors — wanted to provide the money to support his son’s nonprofit, but didn’t want the funds linked to him or his campaign. So he agreed to provide the money to Flynn, who sent $100,000 in university funds to the nonprofit, known as the Policy, Research & Practice Initiative.
Flynn and Mark Ridley-Thomas concealed the arrangement from USC, knowing it would have violated university policy, prosecutors said.
Flynn pleaded guilty in September to one count of bribery, admitting that she agreed to steer money from the then-supervisor to Sebastian Ridley-Thomas’ nonprofit.
During opening statements in the trial, defense attorney Galia Amram said Mark Ridley-Thomas did nothing illegal and there was no quid pro quo arrangement.
“Funneling the money was legal under campaign finance law,” Amram told the jury, adding that none of the $100,000 “went into Sebastian’s pocket.”
She told the panel that “the way it looks … does not make it illegal.”
Mark Ridley-Thomas, 68, of South Los Angeles, faces 19 federal counts, including conspiracy, bribery, and honest services mail and wire fraud. He has vehemently denied any wrongdoing.
“This is a case about power, privilege and lies,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Rybarczyk said in his March 8 opening.
Mark Ridley-Thomas “monetized” and abused the power of his office and lied to cover it up in order to help his son, who had resigned from the state Assembly and was facing a sexual harassment investigation that had not yet gone public, the prosecutor said.
To help himself and Sebastian Ridley-Thomas and protect the family name, Mark Ridley-Thomas “reached out” to Flynn to arrange a series of benefits for his son.
“He knew she was desperate and that she would do anything he asked,” Rybarczyk said, adding that under Flynn, the social work school was facing a multimillion-dollar budget deficit, a situation county contracts could help remedy.
Rybarczyk said that in exchange for Flynn arranging Sebastian Ridley-Thomas’ admission to USC, a full-tuition scholarship and a paid professorship, Mark Ridley-Thomas delivered on his end of the bargain. As a supervisor in 2017 and 2018, he voted on three county proposals that Flynn had sought to shore up her school’s shoddy financial situation, including a vote approving a lucrative amended telehealth agreement with the USC School of Social Work, prosecutors contend. He also allegedly sought to influence key county decision-makers associated with the approvals and made sure Flynn knew of his efforts.
The defense attorney, though, insisted that two of the three contracts were approved by the board before Sebastian Ridley-Thomas even heard he was the subject of a sexual harassment probe.
Flynn has admitted helping to disguise and funnel $100,000 from Mark Ridley-Thomas’ campaign account through the school to another nonprofit, United Ways of California, for the benefit of the Policy, Research & Practice Initiative, a new nonprofit initiative founded by Sebastian, according to her plea agreement.
By funneling the payment through USC, Mark Ridley-Thomas and co-defendant Flynn attempted to disguise the true source of the payment to make it appear as though USC, not the then-supervisor, was the generous benefactor supporting his son and PRPI, prosecutors say.
Mark Ridley-Thomas was suspended from the City Council following his October 2021 federal indictment.
Related: Council appoints Heather Hutt to replace Ridley-Thomas
Flynn, 84, of Los Feliz, pleaded guilty in September to one count of bribery, admitting that she agreed to route money from Mark Ridley-Thomas to Sebastian Ridley-Thomas’ nonprofit. She is scheduled to be sentenced on June 26.
Sebastian Ridley-Thomas became a professor of social work and public policy at USC — despite lacking a graduate degree. He was later terminated over questions about his original appointment and concerns by the university over the $100,000 donation. He also obtained a full-tuition scholarship and graduate school admission, papers filed in Los Angeles federal court show.
Flynn was dean of the USC School of Social Work for 21 years until her departure in 2018. She had originally been facing the same slate of federal charges as Mark Ridley-Thomas.
Mark Ridley-Thomas is a giant figure in local politics, previously serving on the Los Angeles City Council from 1991-2002, then serving 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 has a doctorate in social ethics from USC and spent 10 years as executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles, beginning in 1981.
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