A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge on Wednesday set a May preliminary hearing date for L.A. school board member Ref Rodriguez, making it more likely that Rodriguez, who faces criminal charges, will be on hand to cast important votes on the school board in the coming months.
Rodriguez has pleaded not guilty to the charges, including three felony counts. Prosecutors allege he engaged in political money laundering in his 2015 campaign for office.
While he stepped down as school board president after he was charged, Rodriguez did not give up his seat. But he could be forced to should he be convicted.
The Board of Education, meanwhile, has launched a search for a new superintendent. Rodriguez's vote — and his presence in the room — could be pivotal in choosing L.A. Unified's new leader.
Rodriguez, 46, faces three felony charges for conspiracy, perjury and procuring and offering a false or forged instrument, as well as 25 misdemeanor counts related to the alleged campaign money laundering.
At a preliminary hearing, prosecutors lay out their case before a judge, who must decide whether there is enough evidence for the defendant to stand trial. In court Wednesday, Judge Deborah S. Brazile, drawing on prosecutors' estimates, said that the hearing in this case could last up to six days,
Unless there is a postponement, Brazile on May 9 will assign the case to a trial judge, who would have two days to begin the hearing.
Prosecutors say Rodriguez carried out a scheme in which friends and relatives donated more than $24,000 to his campaign, with the understanding that Rodriguez would reimburse them fully. He could have donated the money legally to his own campaign, but Rodriguez allegedly broke the law by concealing the true source of the contributions — denying voters accurate information about support for his campaign, according to the L.A. County district attorney's office and the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.
His cousin, Elizabeth Tinajero Melendrez, faces related misdemeanor charges. Prosecutors contend that she helped Rodriguez solicit and illegally reimburse the donors. She also has pleaded not guilty.
The case is complicated by separate conflict-of-interest allegations, first reported in the Los Angeles Times, that have to do with Rodriguez's former role as a senior executive at a local charter school group.
Officials at the charter group, Partnerships to Uplift Communities, recently alleged that in 2014, Rodriguez signed or co-signed $265,000 in checks drawn on PUC accounts that were payable to a separate nonprofit under his control. That same year, they allege, Rodriguez authorized payments of $20,400 to a private company called Better 4 You Fundraising, in which he may have owned a stake at the time.
At a previous court appearance, Deputy Dist. Atty. Susan Ser said her team was examining whether to charge Rodriguez in the alleged conflicts of interest.
On Wednesday, Ser declined to comment on the case, but attorneys for Rodriguez and Melendrez said that so far they had not seen any evidence related to alleged conflicts.
"We don't know what's going on with any other possible charges," said Mark Werksman, who represents Melendrez.
Typically, prosecutors release evidence before the preliminary hearing if additional charges are to be filed, the attorneys said.
Through their lawyers, Rodriguez and Melendrez declined to comment.
A couple of district parents attended the hearing to push for Rodriguez to resign.
"A parent has so much advocating to do already on a daily basis," said Colleen Cavanaugh Anthony, who has two sons at Aldama Elementary in Mount Washington. "This is another level of advocating to do that is frustratingly unnecessary."
"We should be talking to board members about things we need at the school," she said, "not having to worry about these allegations or his legal troubles."
5:35 p.m.: This article was updated to include a comment from a parent who attended the hearing.
1:05 p.m.: This article was updated to include the date of the preliminary hearing and input from attorneys representing L.A. school board member Ref Rodriguez and his cousin, Elizabeth Tinajero Melendrez.