LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Jury deliberations began Friday in the federal criminal trial of suspended L.A. City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who is accused of steering lucrative county contracts to USC's social work school in exchange for a slate of benefits for his son.
Prosecutors rested their rebuttal case before the jury panel was sworn in and discussions began around 10 a.m. in Los Angeles federal court.
A day earlier, jurors heard from both sides -- with a prosecutor arguing that Ridley-Thomas, while serving as a county supervisor, "put his hand out" and accepted perks from USC for son Sebastian, who needed media- friendly "landing spots" after resigning from the state Assembly in the midst of a brewing scandal.
A defense lawyer strenuously denied the narrative, telling the jury that nothing Ridley-Thomas did was illegal.
"This was a case about power, privilege and lies," Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsey Greer Dotson said in her summation, describing the trial as dealing with "one of the most powerful politicians in Los Angeles who leveraged his power -- and all the lies he told to cover it up."
Ridley-Thomas, 68, of South Los Angeles, faces nearly 20 federal counts, including conspiracy, bribery, and honest services mail and wire fraud. If convicted as charged, he could be sentenced to decades behind bars.
Before the jury was handed the case, U.S. District Judge Dale Fischer warned the panel to avoid "unconscious biases" and preconceived notions of race.
During the two-week trial, audience seats in Fischer's seventh-floor courtroom were at a premium, frequently filled with dozens of Ridley-Thomas' family members and friends, including Dr. Cornel West, a social activist and scholar familiar from frequent television appearances. Some of those supporters have visibly reacted to the government's accusations, prompting the judge on Friday to threaten to eject persons who cannot restrain themselves.
Prosecutors allege that testimony and a long trail of emails and letters prove that Ridley-Thomas and the former dean of the USC School of Social Work, Marilyn Flynn, had a quid pro quo arrangement during 2017 and 2018 in which the then-dean arranged for Sebastian's admission to USC, a full- tuition scholarship and a paid professorship in exchange for his father's support for county proposals that would ostensibly shore up the school's shoddy financial picture and save Flynn's job.
In addition, Ridley-Thomas allegedly participated in a secret money laundering scheme whereby Flynn funneled $100,000 "seed money" from the politician's campaign fund through the school to the Policy, Research & Practice Initiative, a nonprofit operated by his son who had recently stepped down from the state Assembly amid an internal sexual harassment probe that was about to go public -- at the peak of the #MeToo movement.
"This is a political family -- and this is a crisis for them," Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Morse said in his rebuttal argument.
With the scandal about to break and the Ridley-Thomas name and legacy under threat, the then-supervisor looked for ways for his son to return to work in a prominent, media-friendly position, prosecutors say.
"The defense has argued that there's nothing to see here, that it's not illegal," Morse told jurors. "Well, it is illegal. ... He used his position as a public official to extract things of value (from Flynn)."
However, defense attorney Daralyn Durie insisted that there was nothing illegal about the $100,000 transaction or Ridley-Thomas' support of three contracts that prosecutors claim would've helped remedy the troubled financial situation at Flynn's school. Two of the three proposals were approved by the board before Sebastian had even heard he was the subject of a sexual harassment probe, and the third was a project the then-supervisor had already planned to support, Durie said.
At the conclusion of her two-hour closing argument Thursday, Durie asked the jury to acquit the defendant, and "return this man to his home and his work and his community."
As a result of the alleged exchange, 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, court papers show.
Flynn, 84, of Los Feliz, pleaded guilty in September to one count of bribery, admitting that she agreed to disguise and funnel $100,000 from the then-supervisor to Sebastian' nonprofit through USC. The former longtime dean of the USC School of Social Work, until her departure in 2018, is scheduled to be sentenced on June 26.
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.
He was suspended from the City Council following the October 2021 federal indictment that also named Flynn as co-defendant.