Suspended Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas steered county contracts to USC’s social work school while he was a member of the Board of Supervisors in exchange for benefits for his son, a federal prosecutor told a downtown Los Angeles jury Wednesday, but the defense countered that nothing the veteran politician did was illegal and there was no quid pro quo arrangement.
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 opening statement.
Ridley-Thomas “monetized” and abused the power of his office and lied to cover it up in order to help his son Sebastian, who had resigned from the state Assembly and was facing a sexual harassment investigation that had not yet gone public, the prosecutor said.
However, defense attorney Galia Amram offered a different view, telling jurors that nothing her client is accused of was illegal, “if it was done in good faith.”
She said the main question for jurors to ponder is “what was in Mark Ridley-Thomas’ mind.” The then-supervisor “supported good things because they were good,” she said.
For federal prosecutors, the answer is clear. To help himself and Sebastian and protect the family name, Ridley-Thomas “reached out” to Marilyn Flynn, then the dean of the USC School of Social Work, to arrange a series of benefits for Sebastian.
“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.
“He would offer her a life raft” and preserve the family’s legacy, according to the federal prosecutor.
Rybarczyk said that in exchange for Flynn arranging Sebastian’s admission to USC, a full-tuition scholarship and a paid professorship, 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 heard he was the subject of a sexual harassment probe.
Flynn has admitted helping to disguise and funnel $100,000 from 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, 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.
“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 although “you might not like the way it looks … it does not make it illegal.”
Ridley-Thomas, who was suspended from the city council following his October 2021 federal indictment, sat beside his attorneys as his wife watched from the audience.
The jury — which includes a woman accompanied by her emotional support dog — was seated on Tuesday to hear the case.
Flynn, 84, of Los Feliz, pleaded guilty in September to one count of bribery, admitting that she agreed to route money from Ridley-Thomas to Sebastian’s nonprofit. She is scheduled to be sentenced June 26.
Sebastian 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 School of Social Work at USC for 21 years until her departure in 2018. She had originally been facing the same slate of federal charges as Ridley-Thomas.
Responding to news of Flynn’s plea agreement, USC issued a statement last year saying that after the university learned during the summer of 2018 about unethical conduct by the former dean, “we quickly disclosed the matter to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Marilyn Flynn has not been employed by the university since September 2018. USC is not a party to the criminal case but respects the judicial process.”
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.
The trial is expected to go into next month.