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Charges against school board president stun L.A.'s education world

Charges against school board president stun L.A.'s education world
L.A. Unified school board president Ref Rodriguez appeared in state court Wednesday afternoon to face charges stemming from his 2015 run for office. He was released on a recognizance bond. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Charter school advocates in Los Angeles had been having a great year. With millions of dollars at their disposal, they had won their first majority on the school board and installed a pro-charter board president, Ref Rodriguez.

They had ambitious plans for the future and they had the leadership of Rodriguez, a figure in the national education reform movement.

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Then, on Wednesday, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office charged Rodriguez with three felonies in a 14-page criminal complaint.

No one — not district or charter school leaders or his fellow board members — said they knew it was coming before the news broke.

Rodriguez had been aware for two years he was under investigation for suspect donations made to his school board campaign, he said on Wednesday. And for two years, his colleagues in the world of education had been kept in the dark.

Prosecutors accused Rodriguez of political money laundering by giving $24,250 to his own campaign, while illegally reporting that the donations had come from more than two dozen other people.

His three felony counts are conspiracy to commit a crime, perjury and procuring and offering a false or forged instrument, and he faces 25 misdemeanor charges, one for each donor he allegedly reimbursed. His cousin and campaign volunteer Elizabeth Tinajero Melendrez, 45, also faces criminal charges.

L.A. Unified officials and board members reacted to the news with shock. They insisted that they had no inkling of his troubles back in July, when a majority of the seven-member board voted to make him president. And the district attorney said the investigation is ongoing.

Rodriguez's elevation to board president had symbolic resonance for charter school supporters because he co-founded a charter group, Partnerships to Uplift Communities, commonly known as PUC Schools. He had gone straight out of charter schools onto the board, the first board president chosen by the body's new charter-friendly majority.

Well-liked and careful to avoid heated rhetoric in the charter school debate, Rodriguez was a logical choice for the job. But with criminal charges hanging over him, it could become increasingly uncomfortable for him — and the other board members — to have him as a public face and spokesman for the nation's second-largest school system.

"Today's news about our Board President, Dr. Ref Rodriguez — a longtime educator and advocate for kids — is unsettling," board member Nick Melvoin said in a statement when the news broke. "The serious allegations are not connected to the work of the Board or L.A. Unified; our focus today, as it is every day, has been on our students and school communities."

L.A. Unified General Counsel David Holmquist said Rodriguez has no legal obligation to step down as president, although he could choose to do so.

"To be accused of a crime does not preclude from being able to serve as a board member. He's the sitting board member, the board president. We're going to continue to treat him as such," Holmquist said. "And he'll retain all his rights with respect to that, unless and until he decides to do something."

If Rodriguez vacates his leadership position, but remains on the board, the current majority would be able to choose his successor. But the options would be limited. Melvoin and Kelly Gonez, political newcomers who are part of the new majority voting bloc, are unlikely to be chosen to lead a board they have only recently joined. That would leave only incumbent Monica Garcia, who has served as board president before.

Within the district, however, there was rampant speculation about how long Rodriguez can hold on.

Board member Scott Schmerelson, who did not vote to make Rodriguez board president, expressed sympathy for Rodriguez but declined to commit to keeping him in his current position.

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"You know, I do not really know," he said Thursday. "It hurts because he's a fellow board member. I was in shock, absolute shock. I just hope everything works out."

Gonez, who did vote to make Rodriguez president, declined to comment on his future in the job.

"Unfortunately, the board member doesn't have time to make a statement today," said a member of Gonez's staff.

Board member George McKenna also declined to discuss the situation, including a query about whether Rodriguez should have stood for board president and possibly alerted his colleagues that he was under investigation.

"Those are great questions," McKenna said. "And I have to say: No comment."

In the scheme outlined in the criminal complaint, Rodriguez allegedly cashed out an investment worth $26,000 and gave the money to Melendrez with instructions to deposit it in an account under his parents' names. The complaint says that Rodriguez's mother then wrote checks to her son's friends and relatives, reimbursing them for donations to his campaign.

When Rodriguez submitted his first fundraising statement, it showed that he had raised about $51,000. Prosecutors say 25 of those donations had actually been reimbursed, and that of the money raised, $24,250 came from the candidate himself.

One potential issue for Rodriguez on the board could be whether he cast past improper votes on items for which he should have stepped aside. If district legal staff had known of the allegations, they could have weighed, for example, whether he should vote on matters related to PUC Schools. That's because the criminal charges indicate that PUC employees made illegal campaign contributions funded by Rodriguez. And the other defendant in the case, Melendrez, has worked for PUC Schools since 2004 and was a PUC administrator at the time of the alleged crimes, according to campaign records.

Holmquist said the district's legal staff would look at this and all other possible issues.

PUC already is the subject of a years-long and confidential investigation by the L.A. Unified inspector general. One subject of the probe has been conflicts of interest related to food-service contracts, some of which were entered into while Rodriguez was a senior PUC official. PUC's current leadership has expressed frustration for some time at what seems to them, a never-ending inquiry intent on finding something wrong. Rodriguez's current troubles might only extend the process.

News of the charges against Rodriguez has been especially troubling for charter school advocates and others who looked to him to address not only some of the obstacles they believe stand in the way of charter school growth but the looming financial problems that threaten to hobble the school district.

"I had thought maybe with a new and strong board majority that isn't beholden to the interests from within the district that they might be in a much stronger position" to address district budget concerns, said Eric Premack, founder of the Charter Schools Development Center, an advocacy group.

"I kind of looked to Ref to, with or without regard to his charter reputation, to have the strength to do that," Premack said. "I hope they find some way to resolve this such that he can continue to serve but if not...I fear it might lead to a fractured board again."

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The California Charter Schools Assn., whose political affiliate spent heavily to get Rodriguez elected, issued a statement Wednesday that was cautiously supportive of him.

"We appreciate that Ref has spent his career working to improve educational opportunity for thousands of Los Angeles students," Jed Wallace, chief executive of the association, said in a statement. "We fully expect proceedings related to this matter to be thorough, efficient and fair."

Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this story.

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