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Ref Rodriguez pleads not guilty to charges related to campaign donations

Sarah Favot | October 24, 2017

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Ref Rodriguez

LA Unified school board member Ref Rodriguez pleaded not guilty Tuesday to felony and misdemeanor charges related to an alleged political money laundering scheme during his 2015 election.

Appearing in Los Angeles criminal court, Rodriguez surrendered his passport as a condition of his continued release. He is due back in court Dec. 13 along with his cousin, Elizabeth Tinajero Melendrez, who is also charged in the alleged money laundering and also pleaded not guilty Tuesday.

Prosecutors say during his 2015 successful bid for school board, Rodriguez illegally reimbursed 25 people — mostly family and friends — who gave money to his campaign. The reimbursements totaled about $25,000. Rodriguez then signed campaign finance documents saying the campaign donors were legitimate.

Rodriguez’s attorney Daniel Nixon spoke to reporters after the brief hearing, saying his client “vehemently” denies any wrongdoing and will not be stepping down from the school board. Rodriguez resigned his position as board president in wake of the criminal charges.

“Dr. Rodriguez denies any wrongdoing and has really had one purpose as a school board member and as an advocate in the public school system and that is to work for the children of this community to ensure that there is equal opportunity and quality education available to all,” Nixon said. “That’s been his calling and that’s what he’s done over the last 20 years,”

Rodriguez has declined to speak publicly about the charges. He faces 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 for each of the donations that he reimbursed.

The charges were filed by the LA County District Attorney’s Office last month. If convicted, Rodriguez faces up to four years and four months in jail. The charges grew out of an investigation by the city Ethics Commission following a whistleblower complaint.

Rodriguez, who represents northeast Los Angeles and the cities of Maywood, Vernon, Cudahy, South Gate and Huntington Park, was elected board president by his colleagues in July after the spring election that saw a shift in the board’s ideological makeup to a pro-reform majority.

Rodriguez pledged he would put “Kid’s First” as president — a role that gave him authority to set meeting agendas and often cast him as the board’s public face. After the charges were filed, he stepped down as president but by staying on the board, he remains an important member for the reform majority. Teacher union UTLA has called for his resignation from the board.

On Friday, the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission said it closed a conflict of interest complaint that Partnerships to Uplift Communities filed against Rodriguez, who co-founded the charter network. PUC said in the complaint that Rodriguez authorized about $285,000 in payments from PUC to non-profit organizations he oversaw. An attorney for PUC said they could not verify if any services were provided in exchange for the payments.

The FPPC closed the case without prejudice, citing the ongoing criminal investigation but it could reopen the case after the criminal case is completed.

Nixon said he was still reviewing the allegations made by PUC, but Rodriguez also denies wrongdoing in that matter. PUC has also referred its findings to LA Unified, which oversees the charter school network.

Rodriguez co-founded PUC in 1998. He left the network, which operates 17 charter schools in northeast LA, the northeast San Fernando Valley and New York, after he was elected in 2015.

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