L.A. school board president faces felony charges over campaign contributions

Los Angeles school board President Ref Rodriguez was charged Wednesday with three felony counts of conspiracy, perjury and procuring and offering a false or forged instrument, the result of a months-long investigation by local authorities into donations to his successful first-time run for office in 2015.

The charges against Rodriguez, 46, whose District 5 stretches from Los Feliz to South Gate, were detailed in a 14-page criminal complaint filed by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.

Prosecutors accused Rodriguez of giving more than $24,000 to his own campaign, while illegally representing that the donations had been made by more than two dozen other contributors.

The allegations come at a high point in Rodriguez’s political career. Elected board president in July, he currently presides over the first L.A. school board majority dominated by members who were, like him, elected with major financial support from charter school advocates.

Rodriguez at first declined to comment, but late Wednesday the school district issued a statement from him in which he defended his intentions and suggested that he would stay on as board president.

“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,” Rodriguez said. “Above all, my commitment to the students, teachers, parents and families of Los Angeles remains unwavering.”

The case against Rodriguez grew out of an investigation by the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, which focused on donations to his 2015 campaign. The commission accused Rodriguez of “campaign money laundering” and referred its findings to the district attorney’s office.

The criminal complaint says that in late 2014, shortly after he filed to run for office, Rodriguez cashed out a $26,000 business investment. He gave a check in that amount to his cousin, who was a campaign volunteer, along with instructions on what to do with the money, the complaint says.

The cousin, Elizabeth Tinajero Melendrez, 45, is suspected of depositing the money into a bank account under the names of Rodriguez’s parents. Then, the complaint says, the candidate’s mother signed 16 checks, making them out to friends and family members who were listed as donors to her son’s campaign.

According to the complaint, Melendrez delivered those checks as well as cash reimbursements to people who had made contributions.

Melendrez ultimately persuaded 25 people, most of them Rodriguez’s relatives and friends, to participate by telling them their contributions would be reimbursed, according to a 10-page formal accusation released by the ethics commission on Wednesday. Each gave between $775 and $1,100, for a total of $24,250.

At the end of that reporting period, Rodriguez submitted records “certified under penalty of perjury” showing he had raised $51,001 in individual donations, the document says. “However, nearly half of the reported funds were actually Rodriguez’s own money.”

He reported his personal contribution as $1,100.

Political money laundering is prohibited in part because, as the ethics commission states, it “deprives the public of information about the true source of a candidate’s financial support.”

Melendrez, like her cousin, was charged with one felony count of conspiracy to commit assumed-name contribution. Both she and Rodriguez also were charged with 25 misdemeanor counts of assumed-name contribution. They are scheduled to be arraigned Oct. 24.

If convicted on the felony counts, Rodriguez faces a possible maximum sentence of four years and four months in jail. Melendrez could serve up to three years in jail.

Daniel Nixon, a lawyer for Rodriguez, suggested his client would be able to work through his legal problems.

"As I understand it, candidates fund their campaigns often," Nixon said. "I think it’s a question of simply the details, the nuances, concerning how that takes place."

“This is a harsh and draconian response to a minor alleged transgression,” said Mark J. Werksman, a lawyer for Melendrez.

City campaign finance records show that among the group of people the commission said Rodriguez used to launder his money, at least a dozen worked for the Los Angeles-based charter school organization that Rodriguez co-founded, Partnerships to Uplift Communities, commonly known as PUC Schools. They included a janitor, a tutor and a parent organizer, each of whom donated $1,100 — the legal limit.

Cases like the one outlined in the commission’s report on Rodriguez are highly unusual. Often, it is a donor — not the candidate — who is accused of funneling money into a campaign through contributions from business partners, relatives or employees who are reimbursed.

And once the ethics commission presents the accused with evidence of wrongdoing, the case is commonly wrapped up in a settlement before it’s revealed to the public. The offender agrees to pay a fine and moves on.

But in this case, that did not happen.

Rodriguez and Melendrez were shown the commission’s findings in May, according to the report, but no settlement was reached.

The commission’s options in responding to campaign finance law violations are relatively narrow. It can levy penalties of up to $5,000 per violation, or three times the amount of money unlawfully contributed to the campaign or refer the findings to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.

The money Rodriguez is alleged to have laundered made up a small fraction of his overall campaign haul.

In 2015, he faced two challengers, incumbent Bennett Kayser, who had the backing of the local teachers union, and Andrew Thomas, an educational consultant and L.A. Unified parent. Of the three, Rodriguez raised the most, ultimately bringing in $284,000 for his school board bid. He also benefited from $2.3 million in independent expenditures, mostly from charter school backers — spending that was not controlled by his campaign.

Campaign consultant Mike Shimpock, whose firm has worked on L.A. Unified school board campaigns in the past, said the idea of reimbursing donors “just seems totally irrational” given the dynamics of the 2015 election.

Candidates are permitted to give as much money as they want to their own campaigns, and it was well known in December 2014 that Rodriguez was likely to receive major financial support from charter school backers, Shimpock said.

“Everybody knew going in that he was the charter school guy. He could have shown 35 cents in his account and they would have spent whatever it took on his behalf,” said Shimpock, whose firm was not involved in the Rodriguez contest.

Kayser, who lost his re-election bid to Rodriguez, said he and his supporters had suspicions about his opponent’s contribution reports during the campaign. The list, he said, had custodians and others whom “you wouldn’t expect to make $1,000 donations.”

Kayser said he wished that voters had been aware of the money-laundering allegations before the election. “I think that would have helped my campaign be more successful,” he said.

The charges could deal a serious political blow to Rodriguez and the slim pro-charter school majority on the school board.

In May, two candidates supported by charter school advocates won their elections, tipping the balance of power away from public sector unions. The shift was dramatic, and it was the result of a $17-million campaign — the most expensive school board campaign ever — in which unions representing district employees and wealthy, pro-charter donors competed for influence.

L.A. Unified general counsel David Holmquist said the school district was aware of the charges against Rodriguez.

“These allegations are not connected to any district business. However, we will cooperate, as needed, with the District Attorney’s Office,” he said in a statement.

anna.phillips@latimes.com

Twitter: @annamphillips


UPDATES:

5:55 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from Rodriguez.

4:20 p.m.: This article was updated with additional legal details and comments about the case.

1:45 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details about the charges against Rodriguez.

This article was originally published at 1:05 p.m.

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