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JUST IN: School board president Ref Rodriguez charged with felony campaign violations

Mike Szymanski | September 13, 2017

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LA Unified school board President Ref Rodriguez and his cousin were charged Wednesday with conspiracy and perjury felony counts and 25 misdemeanor counts in connection with allegedly improper campaign reimbursements stemming from his 2014 campaign documents.

Rodriguez and his cousin Elizabeth Tinajero Melendrez were each charged with one felony count of conspiracy to commit assumed name contribution and 25 misdemeanor counts of assumed name contribution in connection with allegedly reimbursing nearly $25,000 to donors that he claimed in a campaign filing form, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.

The charges include one felony count each against Rodriguez of perjury and procuring and offering a false or forged instrument.

• Read the full complaint here.

The arraignment was postponed until Oct. 24, and they were released on their own recognizance. They had been scheduled to be arraigned on Wednesday in Department 30 of the Foltz Criminal Justice Center in downtown Los Angeles.

The school district’s lead attorney, David Holmquist, said that the district has been made aware of the charges and said in a statement: “These allegations are not connected to any district business. However, we will cooperate, as needed, with the District Attorney’s Office. L.A. Unified remains committed to its mission of providing all students with access to high-quality schools so that our graduates are prepared for college and careers.”

When reached by phone Wednesday afternoon, Rodriguez referred questions to his private attorney Dan Nixon and said the attorney will be releasing a statement on his behalf.

In a statement to the Los Angeles Times, Nixon said, “As I understand it, candidates fund their campaigns often,” Nixon said. “I think it’s a question of simply the details, the nuances, concerning how that takes place.”

Late Wednesday, the district released this statement from Rodriguez:

“This decision by the District Attorney comes after attempts by my legal team and me to resolve these issues with the Los Angeles Ethics Commission for over two years. 

 “As the product of an immigrant family, nobody has more respect for the integrity of the American justice system than I do. I have cooperated with authorities and hope these issues will be resolved expeditiously and fairly.

“Above all, my commitment to the students, teachers, parents and families of Los Angeles remains unwavering. I have always been determined to put students first and to bring a ‘Kids First’ agenda to L.A. Unified. I was just a kid from the community and developed a passion for education – and ran as a first-time candidate – in order to help build a better future for other kids like me. That passion has always fueled me, and it always will.”

The charges were brought by a whistleblower complaint sent in March 2015 to the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission about Rodriguez’s fundraising activities. In November 2014, Rodriguez first announced he was running for school board and raised more than $50,000 that was reported Dec. 31, 2014.

According to the District Attorney’s Office, a total of 25 donors were allegedly paid back $24,250, and most of those were family and friends. The donors’ names were listed on a campaign finance report that was reportedly signed by Rodriguez under penalty of perjury and filed with the commission, the district attorney’s office said.

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.

Jed Wallace, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, said in a statement: “We are aware of the charges announced today against Los Angeles Unified School District Board President Ref Rodriguez. We recognize the seriousness of these charges and await all of the necessary facts coming to light. We appreciate that Ref has spent his career working to improve educational opportunity for thousands of Los Angeles students. We fully expect proceedings related to this matter to be thorough, efficient and fair. In the meantime, we maintain our steadfast focus on ensuring all students across the state can access a high-quality education.”

Prosecuting the case is Deputy District Attorney Susan Ser of the Public Integrity Division, who is also in charge of prosecuting David Binkle, the former director of food services for the district who was charged in August in connection with more than a dozen counts of misappropriation of public funds, embezzlement, and conflict of interest.

Rodriguez faces a possible maximum sentence of four years and four months in local custody on the felony counts, while Melendrez faces up to three years in local custody.

Sarah Favot contributed to this report.

*This article has been updated with statements by Rodriguez and his lawyer.

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