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State watchdog agency closes conflict of interest complaint against Ref Rodriguez

Sarah Favot | October 23, 2017

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School board member Ref Rodriguez at a committee meeting last week at Fairfax High.

A conflict of interest complaint alleging that Los Angeles school board member Ref Rodriguez improperly directed $285,000 from the charter school network he co-founded to various non-profits he oversaw has been closed.

The state’s Fair Political Practices Commission sent a letter Friday to Rodriguez’s attorney saying it was closing the complaint brought by Partnerships to Uplift Communities for the time being. The commission cited the pending criminal case against Rodriguez involving allegedly bogus contributions to his 2015 school board campaign.

“In light of Mr. Rodriguez’s criminal indictment in Los Angeles County, the Commission is closing this matter without prejudice,” wrote Galena West, the Enforcement Division chief.

It appears that the FPPC commonly will close complaints if there is an ongoing criminal investigation. It doesn’t preclude the state political watchdog agency from reopening the case down the road.

But Rodriguez’s attorney Jim Sutton said in an email he thinks the commission acted because it did not find any substance to the complaint.

“The FPPC clearly does not believe that the allegations in the complaint warrant an investigation,” Sutton said. “Although the FPPC typically defers to local DAs when the DA is looking at the same or similar allegations, the complaint here is completely unrelated to the criminal case. The FPPC often tells respondents that it has put an investigation ‘on hold’ pending a criminal case; here, it didn’t even think the situation warranted doing that.”

An FPPC spokesman said he could not comment directly on Rodriguez’s case.

“I can say generally speaking FPPC Enforcement Division routinely works with and consults with other agencies to determine the best course of action for all investigations and cases involved to try to achieve the best outcome for justice for the people,” Jay Wierenga said in an email.

The District Attorney’s Office charged Rodriguez last month with three felonies and 25 misdemeanors related to a political money laundering scheme in which prosecutors allege Rodriguez illegally reimbursed campaign donors some $25,000. Most of the donors were family and friends and Rodriguez’s cousin, a campaign volunteer, was also charged. Rodriguez signed campaign finance documents attesting that the contributions were legitimate.

The charges are felony perjury, procuring and offering a false or forged instrument and conspiracy to commit assumed name contribution and 25 misdemeanor counts of assumed name contribution.

The criminal charges grew out of an investigation by the city Ethics Commission into Rodriguez’s campaign finances during his 2015 bid for the school board.

In the conflict of interest complaint filed 10 days ago with the FPPC, the charter school network said Rodriguez approved nearly $285,000 in unauthorized payments from the Partnerships to Uplift Communities to non-profit organizations he oversaw. Rodriguez made the requests for payments and signed the checks, according to the documents.

“Ref Rodriguez participated in several transactions in his official capacity which he had a personal financial interest,” the complaint states.

PUC officials did not respond to a request for comment.

In the criminal case, Rodriguez is expected to be arraigned in downtown criminal court on Tuesday. In his last court appearance, the arraignment was delayed and Rodriguez and his cousin, Elizabeth Melendrez, were released on their own recognizance.

Rodriguez declined to comment on the FPPC letter and has not discussed the criminal allegations publicly.

*UPDATED This story has been updated with comment from the FPPC.

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