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The Sentencing of Mark Ridley-Thomas – Why Questions Will Still Remain in Los Angeles Politics

Then L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas presents an honorary scroll in 2016 to then USC President C. L. Max Nikias who shows the scroll to his wife, Niki C. Nikias. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)


By Zachary Ellison
PACE NEWS Contributor

On Monday August 28, Dr. Mark Ridley-Thomas was sentenced to 42 months in Federal prison, a fine of $30,000, and 3 years’ probation after his released. Dr. Ridley-Thomas was ordered by Judge Dale Fischer to report to federal marshals on November 13 to begin serving this punishment that the judge noted should serve as deterrence to public officials for engaging in corruption. Ridley-Thomas who was accused of improperly brokering two graduate scholarships and a faculty position from the University of Southern California along with using $100,000 campaign money funneled through USC to United Way for use in support of son Sebastian Ridley-Thomas’s potential research into African-American voting behavior.

The sentence follows that handed down to former USC School of Social Work Dean Marilyn Flynn handed down by Judge Fischer on July 24 of 3 years’ probation, with 18 months of home-confinement and a fine of $150,000. Ridley-Thomas will see the inside of a prison cell, while his partner-in-crime whom even the U.S. Attorney’s office deemed criminally culpable will not. Ridley-Thomas a legend of African-American politics in Los Angeles with decades of public service received 130 letters in his support, and one against from political rival Bernard Parks, who demanded that he receive more time than the 6 years Federal prosecutors had requested.

In the end Federal prosecutors did succeed in not only securing a conviction but sending Dr. Ridley-Thomas to prison on the basis that he had engaged in a “bribery and fraud scheme in which the longtime politician demanded benefits for his son from a university dean in exchange for Ridley-Thomas’ political support for lucrative Los Angeles County business.” Judge Fischer went as far as to describe this as a “shakedown” attempt by Dr. Ridley-Thomas, despite email evidence that suggested Marilyn Flynn was a ready and willing conspirator, so culpable that she was charged even while at least one other official Dr. Mark Todd, USC Vice Provost for Academic Operations was able to escape charges as a cooperating witness for the government.

According to journalists Matt Hamilton and Harriet Ryan at the Los Angeles Times in their September 7, 2022 report, the emails that were “were briefly filed in court this summer and later redacted” show the initial approval the exchange met from the USC Office of the Provost. This email which shadowed current Mayor of Los Angeles Karen Bass throughout the 2022 campaign drawing repeated attacks from both rival candidate Rick Caruso as well as millions of dollars in negative advertising from the Los Angeles Police Protective League. The U.S. Attorney’s office has previously denied that Mayor Karen Bass was ever a “target or a subject of our office’s investigation.”

With the focus on deterrence evident from both judge and prosecutors following the jury’s conviction on “one count of conspiracy, one count of bribery, one count of honest services mail fraud, and four counts of honest services wire fraud.” Ridley-Thomas was acquitted of 11 other felony charges last March 30 following the FBI investigation into the case that began when USC Vice President of Professionalism and Ethics Michael Blanton and outside counsel Stephanie Yonekura from the law firm Hogan Lovells presented the allegations to FBI agent Brian Adkins.

The notes of this meeting which were first published from the Court filings by journalist Matt Hamilton on the platform X, formerly known as Twitter, show that USC was able to aggressively report Dr. Ridley-Thomas to the FBI. According to the notes, USC after noting that the $100,000 funds transfer would have been “appropriate if not for the appearance of impropriety,” requested that the FBI “disclose/wrap in the DA’s office” that USC issue a statement “disclosing facts (things up for the discussion)” and to announce that they had wished to disclose that a report was made to the DOJ and FBI.”

It becomes clear that early on in the case, the DOJ and FBI accepted the notion without question that USC was a “victim” of a crime along with United Way. Dean Marilyn Flynn who pleaded guilty to one count of bribery in September 2022 was the sole USC official to be punished for the transaction, despite it having received approval by the USC Office of the Provost. In essence, USC was able to extract the involvement of its senior official from any criminal involvement outside of quietly first removing Marilyn Flynn under the guise of taking a position as Special Advisor to then USC Provost Michael Quick before quietly exiting her under former USC Chairman of the Board of Trustees Rick Caruso. None of this appears in the governments court filings or press release despite being reported in both the Daily Trojan and Los Angeles Times.

Reached by telephone, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office Ciaran McEvoy denied that anything political was amiss, or that election politics had influenced the handling of the case in any way. Asked about the redaction of emails he insisted that nothing improper had happened in sealing the records from the Los Angeles Times and that it was done with mutual consent from both the U.S. Attorney’s office and Dr. Ridley Thomas and suggested alternately that if I wished to see the complete emails used to prove the convictions that I should go to Judge Fischer to have them released and get a “PACER account.” McEvoy also stated that it was not problematic that so many especially in the African-American community in Los Angeles haven’t accepted the guilt, explaining that the burden was not on the government and instead a problem for journalists.

McEvoy also was unconcerned that the case had become so political, stating that even as the supposed victim USC under Rick Caruso used the emails from the case as a central political argument through his campaign to be Mayor of Los Angeles that the U.S. Attorney’s office had no responsibility for his actions in politicizing the case. Instead, he suggested that this journalist should “ask Rick Caruso” about these actions and their advisability. When I suggested that the burden on the government wasn’t just to prove Ridley-Thomas’s guilt, but to strive for transparency in delivering justice. McEvoy denied that anything was amiss, and more broadly that the U.S. Attorney’s office had simply accepted USC’s account of events in making its case and issuing public statements such as that released last Monday.

After noting that concerns remained widespread McEvoy denied that it was problematic in any way, or that the government had any obligation to bring forward a complete version of events, or to remove the cloud of suspicion that continues to dog Karen Bass from having accepted a similar scholarship that she would ultimately receive a Congressional ethics waiver to cover. McEvoy stated dismissively that he had a meeting to attend and wished me luck with this story. The government wasn’t much more forthcoming in their sentencing press conference on whether they felt that justice had truly and properly been delivered in this case. McEvoy defended the narrative offered as comprehensive account of the crimes committed even absent reporting that USC had approved the scholarships and faculty position at the Provosts’s Office level before reversing course.

U.S. Attorney E. Martin Estrada asked by journalist Meghann Cuniff about “some constituents who refused to accept the outcome of the trial…and also journalists who have been writing stories kind of contributing” to skepticism, Estrada responded by saying that the “sentence imposed today is part of numerous sentences imposed on public officials at every-level whether we’re talking about Congress or we’re talking about City Hall, or we’re talking about other public officials that this Office has pursued, and we pursue them for one reason, and that’s when individuals violate their sacred oath and breach the public trust.” The government claims that its “vigorous” prosecution was warranted and it’s unclear whether they will seek retiral on the charges for which they failed to secure convictions.

For his part, Dr. Ridley-Thomas who has maintained his innocence and this actions were not criminal has acceded that they were “inadvisable.” The government’s position that he has completely failed to accept any responsibility is about as accurate as their claims that Marilyn Flynn has been completely “fulsome” in her cooperation with the government, despite technically not testifying directly against Ridley-Thomas as part of the prosecution in exchange for her plea agreement. Estrada’s insistence though that despite Ridley-Thomas taking the case to trial, that this action of seeking justice before a jury is somehow itself a failure to accept responsibility isn’t quite accurate.

The job of the U.S. Attorney’s office shouldn’t be simply to produce cooperation but to dispense justice on an even-handed basis. It’s hard to not to notice that the sentence Ridley-Thomas received is the same as that granted to Rick Singer, mastermind of the admissions fraud scheme at numerous higher educational institutions with USC at its center received the same sentence of 3.5 years along with 3 years post-release probation and the forfeiture of $10 million in illegal earnings from the scheme. Prosecutors had sought 6 years for Singer despite his extensive cooperation in incriminating his wealthy clients after the FBI caught on to his operation.

Rick Singer and Mark Ridley-Thomas are obviously not in the same class of criminals, while the currency Ridley-Thomas used was different that so many other parents who simply paid Singer and his associates including former USC Senior Associate Athletic Director Donna Heinel to execute the scheme. Heinel would receive only 6 months in prison after prosecutors had sought 2 years, being released from prison earlier this year after July 5. One thing is for sure, Marilyn Flynn while elderly should have received some prison time despite her age given her otherwise good health. It’s hard to take the government’s claim that USC is a victim seriously when none of her co-conspirators received any punishment in exchange for cooperation. Is the government seriously interested in only deterring public officials and not university administrators?

Mark Ridley-Thomas had a right to defense as much as any individual, that by itself shouldn’t be held against him in determining punishment. It’s hard to take the governments repeated criticism in its filings of the argument that simply mounting a defense is somehow incrimination. Dr. Ridley-Thomas’s legal team from Morrison & Foerster LLP. If the government’s goal was to deter public officials they’ve succeeded, but it’s hard to see how exactly they have deterred crime in the boardroom as Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsey Greer Dotson told Fischer on Monday.

The pay-to-play atmosphere at USC while surely dampened by both the Ridley-Thomas case as well as Operation Varsity Blues cases, but does anyone really think they’ve completely disappeared? In advance of the sentencing, journalist Meghann Cuniff wrote on X, “I finally got a chance to consume the memos and was [sideways eyes emojis] at these details about what reads like an uncharged RICO conspiracy.” Bernard Parks, the former LAPD Chief and City Councilmember would write in his letter to the court inappropriately using a City Seal that Dr. Ridley-Thomas “attempted to use his race to undermine the public’s faith in the judicial process and has encouraged others to do so as well.”

It’s hard to see how MRT alone could possibly undermine what isn’t there, most American’s don’t trust the judicial process. A June 2020 study by the University of Denver Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, found the same as others before it after interviewing 39 people about their views on the system that “Courts must proactively address both the perception and the reality of racial biases if the public is to view our system as reflecting the rule of law.” It’s hard to say that any effort to proactively address these issues was made by Judge Fischer or the prosecution, in fact, in failing to sentence Marilyn Flynn to prison time she remarked on exactly this issue, that she was on a slippery slope as far as disparity.

Mark Ridley-Thomas isn’t just another Black man in America, at least that’s what he thought, but in making comments to such effect Judge Fischer undermined her own credibility in issuing these sentences. Marilyn Flynn hadn’t really, fully somehow earned leniency for turning on Mark Ridley-Thomas like Rick Singer for cooperating even when her actions were just as questionable as Ridley-Thomas’s. There’s nothing to suggest that this was a “shakedown” but rather that this was simply business as usual at USC, a way of doing business through favors. Did MRT steer contracts to USC inappropriately? Perhaps, but he clearly got more sucked in by the culture of corruption that has plagued USC.

Not in any way that wasn’t already happening, his action while intended for self-benefit was not done with any malice, and so it is that he’ll go to prison, and soon the late Black Political King will learn what’s it like to be just another Black man inside our prison system. We will all bear the cost of his incarceration, while I think Mark deserved punishment, I’m less sure that any message was sent here by the U.S. Attorney’s office that will achieve what they desire on deterrence. Nor do I think this will be the last scandal of its kind to emerge from USC, and I sure hope they are passing the hat around to help Dean Flynn pay her fine at least, after all, wasn’t she just doing it on behalf of her schools troubled finances?

The U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman Ciaran McEvoy wasn’t interested in my suggestion that Dr. Ridley-Thomas had reacted as many African-Americans do when confronted by the judicial system in hedging his defense on his innocence rather than instantly admitting guilt. If anything, by giving the clear appearance that Marilyn Flynn on the advice of counsel was simply able to talk herself outside of a jail cell is as true as the notion that MRT walked himself into one through his hubris and obstinance. In going to trial, MRT earned the enmity of the U.S. Attorney’s office in a way that really makes you wonder, because even as Rick Caruso released a statement saying that “far too many public officials behave as though the law doesn’t apply to them,” you have to wonder if he would say the same thing about USC Dean’s.

It’s not that the government is corrupt in its prosecution, it’s rather that in pulling out all the stops to get one person, it shows that the politics aren’t absent from legal matters. In failing to address the racial dimensions of the trial from the prosecutors side or the bench and in pointing the finger at Dr. Ridley-Thomas for even suggesting any possible influence, they simply failed to make the case that his culpability was any greater than hers. Yes, MRT wanted things he shouldn’t have gotten, but Flynn was more than happy to deliver them and there’s no reason to believe that it was done with any inducement of fear. Flynn has said that she feared getting in “trouble” for not delivering the scholarships and job, but was that fear of just MRT, or of USC’s leadership too that failing to deliver an Amended contract would tank her school’s finances in a way that they wouldn’t so easily accept as tolerable.

The questions are going to remain in Los Angeles. Has justice in this case really been about just corruption or just as much about the ballot box and the egotism of the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office in pursuing the case through vilification. The goal of a good prosecutor shouldn’t just be to vigorously secure a conviction, but to deliver full and complete justice in a case as much as possible. Has corruption been deterred in Los Angeles? Unlikely, those who question, or even want to talk about this case and what it means should be free to do so, without opprobrium for giving any critique of the prosecution or its failure to dampen the political firestorm in meaningful dialogue.

If there were a best practices test for how to handle questions of racial basis in a high-profile court case this was clearly a failure to keep the accuser from benefiting from the accusation itself. Rick Caruso made it harder for justice to be done by grandstanding even as the U.S. Attorney’s office traded barbs with Mark Ridley-Thomas and his legal team in their filings. To fully resolve this as case closed, the U.S. Attorney’s office must secure the release of all files to show the public that there’s nothing more to the story. It does no good when it appears that USC in delivering a “preemptive strike” was able to evade complete exposure on the basis of case submission. Mark Ridley-Thomas was wrong, but two wrongs don’t make a right.

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