LOS ANGELES—Prominent Los Angeles County politician Mark Ridley-Thomas was sentenced on Aug. 28 to three years and six months in prison for voting in support of county contracts that would favor the University of Southern California 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.
Judge Fischer added that Mr. Ridley-Thomas “has committed serious crimes, has not accepted responsibility, and has shown no remorse.”
In addition to the prison time, Mr. Ridley-Thomas was ordered to serve three years on supervised release once he has completed his prison time. He also must pay an assessment and fines of $30,700.
Mr. Ridley-Thomas spoke during the hearing, again contending he did not do anything illegal, but he apologized to his family and constituents for the position in which he had put them.
The former state legislator, city councilman, and county supervisor was ordered to report to prison on Nov. 13.
Prosecutors had asked the judge to sentence Mr. 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 is required, they requested no more than two years and three months, court papers show.
The 68-year-old Mr. Ridley-Thomas was convicted on 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.
In defense papers, Mr. Ridley-Thomas’ attorneys argued for a probationary sentence along the lines of the penalty handed to his co-defendant, Marilyn Flynn.
Ms. Flynn, an 84-year-old former dean of the social work school at the University of Southern California 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 Mr. Ridley-Thomas’ attorneys.
In a letter filed with the court, Bernard Parks, a retired Los Angeles Police Department chief and ex-councilman—who lost to Mr. Ridley-Thomas in the 2008 race for county supervisor—said the prosecution’s recommendation of a six-year prison sentence “is too lenient.”
According to Mr. 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 Mr. 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.” Mr. Parks, like Mr. Ridley-Thomas, is black.
According to the prosecution, Mr. Ridley-Thomas shook down Ms. Flynn, and in doing so made his demands known: “Help me and my son in exchange for Los Angeles County business.”
Prosecutors say Ms. 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.”
Mr. Ridley-Thomas vehemently denied any wrongdoing. He did not testify in his own defense during the three-week 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 Mr. Ridley-Thomas, one of the most formidable politicians in Los Angeles, “used his publicly-provided privileges to monetize his elected office and demand benefits for his son.”
Evidence showed that $100,000 from Mr. Ridley-Thomas’ campaign committee account was quietly funneled through the university to a nonprofit his son Sebastian was spearheading called Policy, Research & Practice. Prosecutors said Ms. Flynn arranged the transfer to please Mr. Ridley-Thomas.
“Witness testimony and hundreds of emails admitted at trial, as well as Ms. 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.”
Mr. 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.
Mr. Ridley-Thomas was suspended from the City Council following the October 2021 federal indictment that also named Ms. Flynn as co-defendant. After the guilty verdicts, Heather Hutt was appointed as the new councilwoman from District 10.
Attorneys for Mr. Ridley-Thomas are appealing the conviction.