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LA Unified Board Member Rodriguez Pleads Guilty in Felony Election Finance Scheme

Posted: Monday, July 23, 2018 – 12:53 PM

(CNS) – Los Angeles Unified School District board member Ref Rodriguez pleaded guilty Monday to a felony conspiracy charge and four misdemeanors for reimbursing donors to his 2015 election campaign, and he resigned from the school board.

“I am sorry for the mistakes I have made,” Rodriguez said in a statement.

Under a plea agreement with prosecutors, Rodriguez was placed on three years probation and ordered to serve 60 days community service. Rodriguez, 47, also reached a settlement Monday with the city Ethics Commission, admitting that he carried out a money-laundering scheme by reimbursing 25 people who donated money to his campaign.

According to prosecutors, Rodriguez raised more than $50,000 during the first campaign reporting period that ended in December 2014 and 25 donors — most of whom were family members and friends — were paid back $24,250 by Rodriguez and his cousin, Elizabeth Melendrez.

The donors’ names had been listed on a campaign finance report that was signed by Rodriguez under the penalty of perjury and submitted to the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission. Rodriguez would have been allowed by law to donate the money to his own campaign directly, but the scheme appeared to be an effort to make his financial support from donors look stronger than it really was.

According to Ethics Commission documents, shortly after Rodriguez began his campaign for the school board seat in November 2014, he “provided $26,000 of his own money to Melendrez, his cousin and a key campaign volunteer, with instructions to funnel that money into his campaign account by asking family members to make contributions.”

Melendrez’ attorney, Mark Werksman, speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, called the matter “much ado about nothing” and “overreach on the part of the District Attorney’s Office and other political forces” that “should have been resolved with a fine.”

Melendrez pleaded guilty Monday to four misdemeanor counts of assumed- name contributions and was sentenced to three years summary probation — which is less strict and does not require regular visits to a probation officer — and 60 days community service.

Parents who had been advocating for Rodriguez’ resignation said the case was more than a matter of technicalities.

“(Rodriguez) wanted to show that he had support. … He lied to get himself elected,” parent Rocio Rivas said.

Defense attorney Daniel Nixon spoke on behalf of Rodriguez, who reported as ordered to the probation office in the courthouse immediately after the hearing.

“He’s lost his job. He’s lost his career. … It’s pretty much a total wipeout for him,” Nixon said.

The defense attorney said the contributions amounted to “a terrible mistake” by a first-time candidate who “simply was not familiar with all the rules” and “did illegally what he could have done legally.”

Rodriguez pleaded guilty to a felony conspiracy charge and four misdemeanor counts of assumed-name contributions, and he resigned from the LAUSD board.

“It has been the honor of my life to serve the communities of Board District 5 as their L.A. Unified board member,” Rodriguez said. “I have spent my adult life working to improve educational conditions for students who come from neighborhoods like the one where I grew up, with parents who worked hard like mine did for me. My life’s work has been to serve others. It will remain the same — I will just pursue that work from a different position.

“Today, I resign from the L.A. Unified Board to resume my role as a private citizen and community advocate. Thank you to the parents, students, community members, my staff and everyone who has given me their unwavering support. I am sorry for the mistakes I have made. I wish all of my colleagues the best as they continue this critical work.”

The city Ethics Commission held a special meeting late Monday morning to approve the settlement of campaign violation allegations against Rodriguez.

Commission Vice President Serena Oberstein said she found Rodriguez’s actions “personally offensive.”

“It’s really unfortunate because Dr. Rodriguez ran on this message of change, and being outside the box. And so in doing what he did and laundering this money and convincing his family and friends to be a part of this, what he did was he diluted his message and his message becomes lost,” Oberstein said.

According to commission documents, Rodriguez admitted that he carried out a money laundering scheme during his 2015 campaign and agreed to pay a $100,000 fine. The fine was levied against both Rodriguez and Melendrez, but Rodriguez has agreed to pay the entire fine in installments himself over one year, according to Ethics Commission staff. Oberstein said the $100,000 fine was the largest levied by the commission in recent memory.

The stipulation was approved by the commission on a 4-0 vote. According to the stipulation, Rodriguez and Melendrez admit they reimbursed 25 political contributions to Rodriguez’s campaign committee, violating the City Charter’s “prohibition against political money laundering.”

Rodriguez had originally been charged with three felonies and 25 misdemeanors in the criminal case. The additional charges against him were dismissed as part of the plea deal.

Rodriguez was elected in 2015 to the District 5 seat on the LAUSD board, representing areas including Atwater Village, Eagle Rock, Highland Park, Los Feliz, Mount Washington and Silver Lake. He is a co-founder of Partnerships to Uplift Communities, a series of charter schools in northeast Los Angeles and the northeastern San Fernando Valley.

Rodriguez stepped down from his position as school board president in September 2017 after the allegations came to light, but he remained on the board.

LAUSD board President Monica Garcia and Vice President Nick Melvoin issued a joint statement saying the panel will meet “in the coming weeks” to determine the process of replacing Rodriguez on the board.

“While we would like to ensure no break in representation for District 5 by appointing a temporary voting representative as soon as possible, we would also like to call a special election to fill the vacancy as soon as we can,” they said. “A board majority will have to agree to a plan.”

Josh Rutkoff, who has two boys in school at Aldama Elementary School in Mount Washington and has been a vocal critic of Rodriguez, told reporters outside the downtown courthouse he wasn’t concerned with the particulars of Rodriguez’ sentence.

“This is not about him at all,” he said.

Rutkoff and other parents and advocates called for a special election to replace Rodriguez, with Rivas asking for the chance to elect “someone who does not have any ties to charter schools” and what she called “a hidden agenda.”

Replacing Rodriguez could become a major political fight. Rodriguez was part of a four-vote majority on the board considered favorable toward expansion of charter schools — which has been vehemently opposed by the teachers’ union and backers of traditional public schools.

“Every chance he got, Rodriguez sided with the agenda of billionaire privatizers such as Eli Broad, the Walmart family, Reed Hastings and Betsy Devos and that of the California Charter School Association,” former LAUSD board member Bennett Kayser — who preceded Rodriguez in representing District 5 — said. “For shame.”

CNS-07-23-2018 12:43

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