The criminal trial of suspended Los Angeles City Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas opened Wednesday as the onetime political power broker faces charges of conspiring to deliver contracts to USC in exchange for a scholarship and job for his son.
Ridley-Thomas, 68, who served on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors from 2008 to 2020, is charged with conspiracy, bribery and honest services mail and wire fraud stemming from a series of votes he made as a supervisor for mental health and probation services offered through the university.
In an opening statement, Asst. U.S. Atty. Thomas Rybarczyk portrayed Ridley-Thomas as a conniving political operator motivated foremost by preserving the reputation of his son, and by extension, himself.
By late 2017, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas was under formal investigation over accusations of sexual harassment while serving as a member of the state Assembly, according to Rybarczyk. To preserve the family’s political brand, the elder Ridley-Thomas helped prevent the ongoing investigation from leaking out, casting his son’s abrupt resignation from the Legislature as prompted by medical problems, Rybarczyk said, and then turning to USC as a landing spot.
“This case is about power, privilege and lies,” Rybarczyk told the jurors.
The prosecutor promised the jurors that they would hear evidence of Ridley-Thomas “abusing the power of his office” and “the lies he told to cover it up.”
The trial is expected to last until early to mid-April and feature testimony from former USC administrators and professors, a communications consultant to Ridley-Thomas and officials from across L.A. County’s vast bureaucracy. The testimony, coupled with hundreds of emails among Ridley-Thomas and his aides, his son and the USC social work dean at the center of the case, will further shine a light on how Ridley-Thomas’ political machine operated.
It’s unclear whether Ridley-Thomas will testify before the jury of eight women and four men.
After the prosecutor outlined the broad contours of the alleged conspiracy, one of Ridley-Thomas’ defense attorneys, Galia Amram, pushed the idea that the government’s theory of corruption was riddled with holes and an inaccurate timeline.
“You just heard a story that you were asked to believe — the story of Mark Ridley-Thomas selling his vote,” Amram said.
“That did not happen,” she asserted.
Instead, Ridley-Thomas had established legitimate relationships with USC leaders, including the social work dean, Marilyn Flynn, and then-President C.L. Max Nikias. The contracts at the center of the case, Amram said, were the result of long-standing work among various Ridley-Thomas aides, USC, and the staff of other L.A. County supervisors.
Amram suggested that a sloppy investigation dwelled on USC’s inner workings while neglecting to understand the awarding of L.A. County contracts.
“A supervisor cannot just do whatever they want,” Amram told the jury. “A supervisor cannot just sign a contract on behalf of the county. There’s a process.”
Showing a flow chart of contracts being worked on by staff, reviewed by county lawyers and the county chief executive, then going before the Board of Supervisors, Amram asked: “Did any of this not happen? Was any of this skipped over?”
The first witness in the case, Brenda Wiewel, testified Wednesday morning that she delivered a confidential letter to Ridley-Thomas’ office on Flynn’s behalf. The letter appears to outline the crux of a quid pro quo between Ridley-Thomas and Flynn.
Before Wiewel took the stand, Amram had said in her opening statement that the government had no clue how Ridley-Thomas or his staff viewed the letter — because no one on the politician’s staff had ever been interviewed by investigators.
“The government made choices about who to talk to and who not to talk to, who to ignore and who to pay attention to,” Amram said.
The outcome, she suggested, was a case that was heavy on misconduct by USC but scant on understanding of what Ridley-Thomas knew or did.
“Nothing the government told you was illegal — if it was done in good faith,” Amram said.