6 things to know about the old and new Ref Rodriguez allegations
Sarah Favot | October 17, 2017
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Shockwaves reverberated through the Los Angeles education community last month when the LA County District Attorney filed charges against LA Unified school board President Ref Rodriguez alleging he engaged in political money laundering during his election two years ago.
New allegations were revealed Monday when the Los Angeles Times published a report saying that the charter school network that Rodriguez co-founded, Partnership to Uplift Communities, had filed a conflict of interest complaint against Rodriguez saying he wrongly authorized $285,000 in payments to a nonprofit organization he led.
The new allegations come as Rodriguez is facing increasing pressure to resign his board position. Rodriguez stepped down last month from his role as board president, but he remains a voting member of the board. If he resigns, it would deal a blow to the pro-reform majority that was achieved with the board elections this spring.
Let’s review what Rodriguez is facing and what comes next.
1. RECAP OF LAST MONTH’S CRIMINAL CHARGES
Following a whistleblower complaint and investigation by the City Ethics Commission, the District Attorney’s Office filed charges on Sept. 13, including three felony counts of perjury, procuring and offering a false or forged instrument, and conspiracy to commit assumed name contribution, and 25 misdemeanor counts of assumed name contribution, against Rodriguez. Prosecutors say Rodriguez reimbursed 25 campaign donors — most of whom were family and friends — $25,000 of his own money. But Rodriguez signed campaign finance documents under penalties of perjury stating that those donors had given him the money.
Rodriguez’s cousin, Elizabeth Tinajero Melendrez, was also charged in the scheme. The Los Angeles Times reported that she resigned from her position as a senior manager at PUC on Friday.
The case has puzzled campaign finance experts because there is no limit to what a candidate can give to his own campaign. Some observers say Rodriguez likely wanted to give the appearance that his campaign had grassroots support early on in the election. Many of the donors were janitors and workers at PUC, the charter school network Rodriguez co-founded. KPPC published a report during the 2015 election noting how janitors and other low-level workers were donating $1,100 to Rodriguez’s campaign. At the time Rodriguez said the donors would not be reimbursed.
The ethics commission staff found that nearly half of the campaign contributions made over a 22-day period in December 2014 were allegedly fraudulent because Melendrez and Rodriguez reimbursed them. The findings were referred to the District Attorney’s Office, and that led to the filing of criminal charges against both defendants.
Prosecutors said in December 2014 Rodriguez cashed out a $26,000 business investment and then gave that money to Melendrez with instructions to reimburse 25 campaign donors.
2. LAUSD DECLINES TO REVEAL IF IT IS CONDUCTING AN INVESTIGATION
In response to a Public Records Act request filed by LA School Report for any communications the district has received from the District Attorney’s Office about the case, including any subpoenas or search warrants, LA Unified’s legal team denied the request citing an exemption due to “records of a confidential ongoing investigation.” The district has not responded to follow-up questions about whether the district is conducting its own investigation.
Rodriguez has declined to speak publicly about the charges. In a statement after the charges were filed, Rodriguez said he had been working with the Ethics Commission for two years to “resolve these issues.”
Rodriguez has not denied the allegations. In a statement, his lawyer, Daniel Nixon, said: “As I understand it, candidates fund their campaigns often. I think it’s a question of simply the details, the nuances, concerning how that takes place.”
3. CHARTER GROUP FILES A COMPLAINT
In a separate case, reported Monday in the Los Angeles Times, Partnership to Uplift Communities filed a complaint Friday with the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission alleging that Rodriguez authorized $285,000 in payments to a nonprofit organization he ran.
There is little or no evidence that the charter group received any services, and PUC’s records indicate that Rodriguez both authorized and signed the checks. He was also serving as PUC’s chief financial officer during much of the period in which the checks were being written, according to the LA Times.
The FPPC said it cannot release the complaint until five days after it has received it per its regulations.
A spokeswoman for PUC declined to release the complaint but sent a statement from its board chairman, Manuel Ponce Jr.
“Due to the ongoing investigations, PUC Schools has no comment at this time about the Fair Political Practices Commission filing. Our focus on our amazing families, teachers and staff is steadfast, as is our commitment to providing all of our students with the quality public education they deserve,” the statement said.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who has given millions to elect charter school supporters to the state Legislature and local school boards, donated $75,000 to a legal defense fund that Rodriguez set up, KPPC reported Tuesday.
4. RODRIGUEZ IS EXPECTED AT COURT NEXT TUESDAY
Rodriguez is scheduled to appear in court on Tuesday to be arraigned. He has not yet entered a plea.
Rodriguez briefly appeared in court on the day the charges were filed but was released on his own recognizance. He is expected to appear Tuesday with his attorney.
5. NO COMMENT FROM RODRIGUEZ AT TUESDAY’S SCHOOL BOARD MEETING
All eyes were on Tuesday’s school board committee meeting at Fairfax High School. Rodriguez attended but declined to speak to reporters. Last month, when Rodriguez announced he was resigning as board president, it was just before a committee meeting began. He announced it on both his Twitter and Facebook pages.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the four other board members present each declined to comment on the charges against Rodriguez. Two board members, Richard Vladovic and George McKenna, did not attend, after vowing last week to boycott the meeting because they felt removed from decision-making. They did not respond to requests for comment about Rodriguez.
The meeting ended just after 5 p.m., and while seven speakers had signed up to address the board during public comment, by the time it came to speak, only about 10 people were left in the audience — but none of the speakers.
6. NO RECALL PETITION HAS BEEN FILED
United Teachers Los Angeles, the local teachers union, has been a vocal critic of Rodriguez’s decision to remain on the board. It has called on him to step down.
But so far no recall petitions have been filed against Rodriguez, according to the City Clerk’s Office.
A recall petition must receive signatures from 15 percent of the registered voters in a district. For District 5 — which includes Highland Park and Eagle Rock and the cities of Huntington Park, Vernon, and Maywood — that would be about 45,000 signatures. The signatures must be gathered within 120 days.
The signatures must be verified and if determined sufficient, a recall election will be held.
Mike Szymanski contributed to this report.
*This article now includes updates from Tuesday’s committee meeting.