Former Longtime L.A. City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas Sentenced To 3-Plus Years In Prison

Prominent Los Angeles County politician Mark Ridley-Thomas was sentenced today to three years and six months in prison for voting in support of county contracts that would favor USC while accepting benefits for his son from the university.

“This was a shakedown,” prosecutors wrote in sentencing papers. See the Justice Department’s recap of the case below.

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“Not the kind in movies with bags of cash or threats of force. But the kind that is polite and pervasive. The kind that happens too often by sophisticated, powerful people. The kind to which society, sadly, has become so accustomed that it often goes unreported and rarely yields consequences for the offender but strikes a devastating blow to the integrity of our democratic system.”

Defense attorneys asked for a term of home confinement, community service and a fine, but no prison time. However, if incarceration is required, they requested no more than two years and three months, court papers show.

Ridley-Thomas, 68, was convicted March 30, while he was a suspended member of the L.A. City Council, on single counts of conspiracy, bribery, honest services mail fraud and four counts of honest services wire fraud, stemming from his time serving on the county Board of Supervisors.

Democrat Ridley-Thomas is a fixture of local politics, having held office for the past 30 years as, variously, an L.A. City Councilman, a member of the California State Assembly and Senate and an L.A. County Supervisor. Ridley-Thomas was suspended from the City Council following the October 2021 federal indictment. After the guilty verdicts, Heather Hutt was appointed as the new councilwoman from District 10.

He is the third L.A. city councilman to face federal charges over the past few years. Former member José Huizar was arrested on racketeering charges in 2020 and pleaded not guilty. Former Councilmember Mitchell Englander was sentenced in 2021 to 14 months in federal prison for his conduct surrounding his obstruction of a public-corruption investigation.

Jurors, who reached their verdicts on their fifth day of deliberations in Los Angeles federal court, acquitted Ridley-Thomas of a dozen fraud counts.

In defense papers, Ridley-Thomas’ attorneys argued for a probationary sentence along the lines of the penalty handed to his co-defendant, Marilyn Flynn.

Flynn, an 84-year-old former dean of the social work school at USC who pleaded guilty to bribing the veteran politician, was sentenced last month to 18 months home confinement and ordered to pay a $150,000 fine.

“A just sentence must consider whether imposing a significantly different sentence from that imposed on Dean Flynn lends to the appearance of vindictiveness for proceeding to trial,” according to Ridley-Thomas’ attorneys.

He is appealing the conviction.

“Mr. Ridley-Thomas was elected to serve the people of Los Angeles, but instead, his deliberate actions served his own interests and those of his family member,” said Donald Alway, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office. “The FBI will continue to target the corruption that erodes trust in government so the people of Los Angeles can have faith in their elected officials.”

Here is the DOJ’s synopsis of the Ridley-Thomas case:

The jury found that Ridley-Thomas engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Marilyn Louise Flynn, 84, of Los Feliz, formerly the dean of the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work and a tenured professor.

In December 2017, citing health issues, Ridley-Thomas’ son abruptly resigned from the California State Assembly. At the time of his resignation, Ridley-Thomas’ son was the subject of a sexual harassment investigation in the Assembly, a fact not known by USC or the public. Behind the scenes, Ridley-Thomas orchestrated a media and legal campaign, using a public relations team to convince the public his son was ill and a legal team to indefinitely stall the Assembly’s investigation.

Ridley-Thomas sought “landing spots” for his son, prosecutors said, to preserve the Ridley-Thomas family legacy and Ridley-Thomas’ own political brand in advance of a planned run for Los Angeles mayor in 2022. These “spots” included prestigious titles, advanced degrees, and paying jobs to help his son deal with mounting personal debt.

Ridley-Thomas solicited Flynn’s help securing these spots for his son. He knew that Flynn needed his help obtaining county contracts, and he “monetized” his public service by using the power of his elected office as a “bargaining chip” to enrich his family and preserve his political image, prosecutors argued.

During the conspiracy’s course, Flynn ultimately met Ridley-Thomas’ demands by providing his son graduate school admission to pursue a dual master’s degree, a full-tuition scholarship, a paid professorship, and a mechanism for Ridley-Thomas to funnel $100,000 of his campaign funds through the university to a non-profit operated by the son – the Policy, Research & Practice Initiative (PRPI).

By funneling the payment through USC, Ridley-Thomas attempted to disguise the true source of a $100,000 payment to make it appear as though USC, not Ridley-Thomas, was the generous benefactor supporting his son and PRPI.

As part of their scheme, Ridley-Thomas and Flynn defrauded USC and others by concealing their secret arrangement and lying to the university about the purpose of Ridley-Thomas’ $100,000 donation of campaign funds to USC, as well as the reason for Flynn’s request that the university make a $100,000 payment to PRPI. Had USC known about their scheme or the lies both told, USC would not have accepted Ridley-Thomas’ $100,000 donation, nor would it have approved the subsequent $100,000 payment to PRPI.

In exchange for Flynn’s help funneling the $100,000 in campaign funds through USC to PRPI and his son, Ridley-Thomas supported a lucrative amendment to an existing contract between the county and USC through which the USC Telehealth Clinic provided virtual mental health services to patients referred by the county in exchange for taxpayer dollars. On the face of the contract, the amended terms offered USC more than $500,000 in revenue, although according to evidence at trial, Flynn anticipated an even greater return – potentially up to $8 million in new revenue – with
Ridley-Thomas’ assistance.

In addition, while soliciting benefits from Flynn, Ridley-Thomas supported other contracts involving the Social Work School, including contracts to provide services to the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and the county’s Probation Department. During the conspiracy, Ridley-Thomas voted on three county proposals, including the amended Telehealth contract, that Flynn had sought to shore up her school’s financial situation as it faced a multimillion-dollar budget deficit. Ridley-Thomas also worked to influence key county decisionmakers associated with these approvals and made sure Flynn knew of his efforts while he sought lucrative benefits for his son from Flynn.

City News Service contributed to this report.

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