LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Prominent Los Angeles County politician Mark Ridley-Thomas was sentenced Monday to three years and six months in federal prison for voting in support of county contracts that would favor USC while accepting benefits for his son from the university.
"The entire community has been victimized by the defendant's crimes," U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer said during the sentencing hearing inside a packed downtown Los Angeles courtroom.
Fischer added that Ridley-Thomas "has committed serious crimes, has not accepted responsibility and has shown no remorse."
In addition to the prison time, Ridley-Thomas was ordered to serve three years on supervised release once he completes his prison time. He also must pay an assessment and fines of $30,700.
Ridley-Thomas spoke during the hearing, again insisting he did not do anything illegal, but he apologized to his family and constituents for causing the "perception that I deviated from proper conduct." He said the actions he took that resulted in his conviction were "ill-advised, but not illegal."
The former state legislator, city councilman and county supervisor was ordered to report to prison on Nov. 13. He showed no reaction as the sentence was imposed.
Prosecutors had asked the judge to sentence Ridley-Thomas to six years behind bars, writing in a sentencing memorandum that he took part in "a shakedown."
"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," prosecutors wrote.
Defense attorneys had asked for a term of home confinement, community service and a fine, but no prison time. However, if incarceration was required, they recommended no more than two years and three months, court papers show.
The 68-year-old Ridley-Thomas 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.
Jurors, who reached their verdicts on their fifth day of deliberations in Los Angeles federal court, acquitted him of a dozen fraud counts.
Ridley-Thomas' attorneys argued for a probationary sentence along the lines of the term of home confinement handed to his co-defendant, Marilyn Flynn. Defense attorney Galia Z. Amram said that the government was recommending a prison term in order to punish her client for refusing to accept a plea deal and showing no remorse after he was convicted.
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.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsey Greer Dotson told the court that the reason she was asking for a prison term for Ridley-Thomas was because "one of the most powerful politicians (in Los Angeles) ... used his position of power as a bargaining chip. Monetizing one's position is a crime -- and it's a really serious crime."
Dotson added that, while the government recognizes that Ridley-Thomas accomplished much good during his 32-year career in local politics, it was important to send a message that "no one -- no matter how powerful you are -- is above the law."
In a letter referenced by the judge, Bernard Parks, a retired Los Angeles Police Department chief and ex-City Councilman -- who lost to Ridley- Thomas in the 2008 race for county supervisor -- wrote to the court that the prosecution's recommendation of a six-year prison sentence "is too lenient" and requested the maximum term.
According to Parks, "what was missed in the sentencing recommendation was how Mr. Ridley-Thomas' colleagues were also victimized by his crimes. He misled his colleagues by soliciting their voting support, while failing to advise them of his corrupt behavior. By doing this, he led them to the brink of corruption, which cast doubt on their honesty, integrity and opened the door for their constituents to believe they were involved in his schemes."
Urging the judge to impose "the highest penalty that his crimes allow," the former police chief wrote that Ridley-Thomas' "continued failure to accept responsibility or show remorse is also reprehensible. What's more, he's attempted to use his race to undermine the public's faith in the judicial process and has encouraged others to do so as well." Parks, like Ridley- Thomas, is Black.
According to the prosecution, Ridley-Thomas shook down Flynn, and in doing so made his demands known: "Help me and my son in exchange for Los Angeles County business."
Prosecutors say Flynn got the message: "Aware that lucrative County contracts and an amendment to the existing Telehealth contract hung in the balance, Flynn worked tirelessly, for over a year, to deliver seemingly any benefit and perk at her disposal to please defendant and his son."
Ridley-Thomas vehemently denied any wrongdoing. He did not testify in his own defense during the 12-day trial, but his attorneys argued repeatedly that nothing he did amounted to a crime.
Federal prosecutors based their case on a long string of emails and letters they say showed that Ridley-Thomas "used his publicly-provided privileges to monetize his elected office and demand benefits for his son."
Evidence showed that $100,000 from Ridley-Thomas' campaign committee account was quietly funneled through USC to a nonprofit his son Sebastian was spearheading called Policy, Research & Practice. Prosecutors said Flynn arranged the transfer to please Ridley-Thomas.
"Witness testimony and hundreds of emails admitted at trial, as well as Flynn's admissions in her plea agreement, make clear that defendant drove and orchestrated this corrupt scheme," prosecutors wrote.
In their argument for probation and home confinement, defense attorneys maintained there was no need to incarcerate their client.
"He has been in the public eye for decades," his lawyers wrote. "His reputation was built on ethical community empowerment. The shame of his convictions is punishment and provides ample specific deterrence.
"With the felony convictions, his service in public office is over. He has lost his city council position and may lose his pension. Now nearing 70 years of age, he faces a desperately uncertain financial future. And a lengthy sentence is not needed to protect the public."
Fischer said from the bench that Ridley-Thomas "was one of the most formidable politicians in Los Angeles," and the crowded courtroom illustrates "the extraordinary level of support" he enjoys.
However, she added, "there is simply no justification for monetizing a public office."
Ridley-Thomas served on the Los Angeles City Council from 1991-2002, then was a member of the Assembly and state Senate before being elected to the powerful county Board of Supervisors in 2008, serving until 2020, when he returned to the City Council.
Ridley-Thomas was suspended from the City Council following the October 2021 federal indictment that also named Flynn as co-defendant. After the guilty verdicts, Heather Hutt was appointed as the new councilwoman from District 10.
Attorneys for Ridley-Thomas said they would appeal the conviction and suggested outside court that there are "significant issues" to be addressed.