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Instant Expert: The 10 things to know about the charges against Board President Ref Rodriguez

Mike Szymanski | September 15, 2017

Ref Rodriguez at Tuesday’s board meeting.

The day after a seemingly uneventful and smooth-running school board meeting that newly elected LA Unified School Board President Ref Rodriguez proudly ended at an earlier-than-usual 5 p.m., the district seemed to be shaken to its core.

On Wednesday, Rodriguez was charged with three felony counts involving campaign contributions to his 2015 election bid. Rodriguez’s cousin was also charged with one felony.

Immediately, questions erupted. Does he have to step down? What’s going to happen to the school board? What about the “Kids First” agenda?

One major thing the district is trying to emphasize is that no one has been convicted of anything yet, and that people are innocent until proven guilty. The district and school board members have issued statements showing how they are trying to keep business going as usual.

Here are a few of the early answers that we know about the case, and we will provide more information as we can. 

1. What are the charges against him?

Ref (whose full name is Refugio) Rodriguez, 46, was charged officially with “conspiracy, perjury, and procuring and offering a false or forged instrument” relating to his election campaign in 2015. He, and his cousin, Elizabeth Tinajero Melendrez who worked on his campaign, were also charged with 25 counts of “assumed name contribution.” Read the full complaint here.

There are limits to how much money someone can contribute to a campaign, and going around it can be considered a form of money laundering, according to investigators. “Assumed name contributions” happens when a person asks someone else to make a contribution to a campaign and supplies the money to pay for it. Such contributions create the appearance of broader support for the candidate while allowing him or her skirt some campaign rules.

Rodriguez is accused of reimbursing nearly $25,000 to people — mostly family and friends — who donated to his campaign. When Rodriguez signed off on his list of donors filed with the LA Ethics Commission, prosecutors say he committed perjury because Rodriguez allegedly knew that some of the donors listed on the form were reimbursed and did not contribute their own money. The LA Ethics Commission called it a political money laundering scheme.

2. Does this have anything to do with schools?

No, this doesn’t involve any school district money, with LAUSD attorney David Holmquist saying, “These allegations are not connected to any district business.”

3. Does this have anything to do with the last election?

No, this isn’t connected to this year’s election, the most expensive school board race in U.S. history. It goes back to the 2015 election where Rodriguez unseated Bennett Kayser, and Scott Schmerelson unseated Tamar Galatzan. Rodriguez announced his candidacy in November 2014 having never run for public office before. The concern is over his first campaign contributions filed in December 2014.

4. What evidence have they found?

A whistleblower made a complaint to the City Ethics Commission during the previous election and an investigation began in March 2015. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office reviewed the commission’s investigation and findings and filed criminal charges Wednesday against Rodriguez and his cousin.

The district attorney’s office said they found that over a 22-day period in December 2014 nearly half of the contributions were fraudulent because Rodriguez and Melendrez had allegedly reimbursed the reported donors. Including himself, there were 18 surnames of “Rodriguez” on the first disclosure form, some giving the maximum amount of $1,100 to the campaign. Then, $24,250 of the campaign contributions were reimbursed by Rodriguez, investigators said.

The private donations were less than 20 percent of Rodriguez’s total campaign contributions. His biggest donor, at $1.8 million,  was the California Charter School Association Advocates, an independent PAC to CCSA.

The pro-reform candidate Rodriguez unseated Kayser, who was supported by labor unions. Kayser noted at the time he thought it was suspicious that so many people contributed such large amounts to Rodriguez’s campaign during the Christmas holidays.

5. Is he facing jail time?

Yes, if convicted of all three felonies and 25 misdemeanors, Rodriguez faces a possible maximum sentence of four years and four months in jail, while Melendrez faces up to three years in local custody. The penalties for the 25 misdemeanors can be as much as $5,000 per count —that’s $125,000 each.

6. Will he have to step down as school board president?

Not necessarily. Board rules allow him to remain while facing the charges as long as it doesn’t affect his duties as president. But the Los Angeles Times already published an editorial suggesting that the accusations “cast a shadow of distrust over the board and all its dealings.” Others are already calling for him to step down, too.

Contacted Thursday evening, Kayser, Rodriguez’s former opponent, said, “Of course he has to step down for the good of the school district, until this matter is completely cleared up one way or the other. It’s bad for the whole district.” None of the board members have called for his resignation and Nick Melvoin described Rodriguez as a “a longtime educator and advocate for kids.”

However, Rodriguez could choose to step aside from his leadership role until the case is resolved, and then his vice president, Monica Garcia, would run the school board meetings.

According to board rules, any two board members can appeal any decision the president makes. It requires four votes to overrule the president. Or, the school board could pass a resolution suggesting that he step down from his position.

7. Has this ever happened at LA Unified before?

Although board members have been recalled, and some have stepped down for other reasons, no one in institutional memory recalls that a board president has faced criminal charges. If convicted of the charges, the California Elections Code notes that the office becomes vacant if the “offense is involving a violation of his or her official duties.”

8. When did Rodriguez find out about these charges?

Rodriguez and his cousin were notified by the ethics commission that there was probable cause for the charges on May 17 of this year. They retained lawyers and responded in pleadings to the commission on June 7 and June 16. There was a closed conference on Aug. 1, according to the Ethics Commission.

On Aug. 28, the commission’s executive director determined that there was enough evidence to show crimes had been committed, and Rodriguez and Melendrez were both served notices on Sept. 6. They appeared in court with their lawyers on Sept. 13 before Superior Court Judge Deborah Brazil.

Prosecutors wanted bail set at $61,250 bail for Rodriguez, and $26,250 for Melendrez. The judge released them without bail and ordered them to return to court Oct. 24. They had to surrender their passports.

8. What will happen Oct. 24?

A hearing will take place where  the defendants will again appear publicly with their lawyers. The full charges against them will be read, and they will enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest.

Leading up to that court date, attorneys said they are trying to get the charges dropped, which means the case could be dismissed.

“We are going to come back to court in a couple of weeks and see where things stand,” said Daniel Nixon, Rodriguez’s lawyer.

9. When did the other school board members find out about this?

Board member Nick Melvoin said the board was notified only in the last 24 hours. He said he found the news “unsettling” and “the serious allegations are not connected to the work of the board or LAUSD.”

Monica Garcia released a statement saying, “Today, I am reflecting deeply about the honor to serve on the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education. Nothing will deter the LAUSD from our focus on the important work of ending illiteracy in our schools, increasing language capability of all learners, meeting the needs of our students, and supporting our schools.”

The next time all the school board members plan to meet is Tuesday, Sept. 19 at the Committee of the Whole. It’s a committee where board action doesn’t officially take place, and has been traditionally run by board member George McKenna. The agenda is scheduled to be posted Sept. 15. The 1 p.m. meeting is open to the public and will be broadcast live.

10. What do we know about Rodriguez’s cousin? 

Her name is Elizabeth Tinajero Melendrez and she works in school operations at the public independent charter schools, Partnerships to Uplift Communities, or PUC schools. She is represented by her own attorney, Mark Werksman.

Rodriguez co-founded PUC with Jacqueline Elliot but has since dissolved any connection to the school. He has recused himself every time something about PUC comes before the board. He is still on their website as a co-founder.

On Wednesday, Elliot issued a statement to PUC staff saying, “We are confident that Dr. Rodriguez will overcome this challenge. Although this is a very difficult time for us, our organization remains strong and our commitment to our students, families, and communities will not waver.”

Rodriguez issued statements in both English and Spanish: “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.”

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