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What Ref Rodriguez's latest legal problems mean for the charter school movement

When prosecutors filed campaign finance charges against L.A. school board member Ref Rodriguez last month, many charter-school supporters rallied to his defense in hopes of saving not just his seat but their pro-charter school agenda.

They said that Rodriguez, a political novice, had made mistakes and that the amount of money involved, about $24,000, was too small for so much fuss.

But new conflict-of-interest allegations that came to light Monday focus on significantly more money — about $285,000 — and on Rodriguez’s actions as co-founder of a charter school network, his area of expertise.

Now the prospects of keeping him on the board, as the linchpin of a narrow 4-3 pro-charter majority, have suddenly become politically perilous.

Partnerships to Uplift Communities, which Rodriguez co-founded, alleged in a complaint to the California Fair Political Practices Commission last week that Rodriguez authorized $265,000 in payments from PUC to a nonprofit that he ran. The complaint also notes that he co-signed checks totaling $20,400 to a private company in which he might have owned a stake.

An attorney who examined the money transfers for PUC said he had found little to no evidence so far of service provided for the payments.

During a period when charter leaders are pressing for fewer regulations, the allegations of self-dealing have given fresh ammunition to those who have long called for more oversight.

“This isn’t just about an individual,” said Alex Caputo-Pearl, head of United Teachers Los Angeles, the local teachers union. “It’s not just about one potential mistake of an individual. This is about the charter school industry and bad practices.”

Charter school advocates “spend their lives saying that they care about kids, but protecting their power and fighting to protect someone who is engaged in self-dealing is not protecting kids,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Those are just about the last messages that charter supporters would want the public to take away from the problems plaguing Rodriguez.

The California Charter Schools Assn., which put more than $2 million into the effort to elect Rodriguez in 2015, stuck to a statement — originally issued Monday — that it expects of the charter movement “the highest standards of integrity and ethics.”

Campaign consultant Michael Trujillo, who worked on behalf of charter-backed candidates this year, said he is not worried that Rodriguez’s legal woes will hurt L.A.’s charter movement. “Any time you have a larger organization, whether it’s a nonprofit or a government agency, you find folks that are making human errors or making larger mistakes,” he said. “At no point does the public cast a wider net.”

Numerous other charter advocates declined to discuss the allegations.

The current school board majority, which includes Rodriguez, is the first to be elected largely as a result of major funding from charter-school backers.

What that means in practice has yet to be truly tested. So far, the pro-charter bloc has stuck together in votes, even on relatively minor issues. But its members have resisted any characterization that they are tools of charters. In one instance this month, they even voted against a charter school renewal.

But their backers had high expectations, especially for a strong pushback against the rules of the district division that oversees local charters.

Rodriguez’s vote matters. If he were to step down, the result could be a 3-3 deadlock.

If Rodriguez chooses to fight the charges, it could take two to three years to resolve the case. Such a scenario would give charter school advocates “enough time to have another round of elections, so they can look for their next fourth vote,” said political consultant Rick Taylor, who said he has not worked on recent school-board elections.

But if the board moves to scale back charter school regulations, with Rodriguez casting the key vote, that could look bad to the public. Campaign consultant Mike Shimpock said the latest allegations show Rodriguez is “the fox guarding the henhouse” when it comes to supervision of charter schools.

“The question is: Does Rodriguez deliver the reduction in oversight for the charter schools before he leaves?” he said. “Because it’s not a question of whether they’re going to try and do it. It’s whether they can do it before he is forced from office.”

Shimpock worked on this year’s unsuccessful reelection bid of board member Steve Zimmer. Zimmer was backed by the teachers union and lost to Nick Melvoin, who is part of the pro-charter majority.

On Tuesday, Melvoin had little to offer about next steps.

“It’s a serious allegation that I haven’t had much time to look into, but obviously I will,” he said Tuesday before a board meeting at Fairfax High School, of the most recent allegations against Rodriguez. “We need to make sure we’re all operating with integrity, transparency and accountability. So I expect that we’ll get a full accounting of what happened and then go from there.”

Board President Monica Garcia, who is also part of the current majority, said it was important for board members to focus on their fundamental role of looking out for the interests of students as events played out.

One example of an issue important to charters is the level of regulation that L.A. Unified has required charters to accept. Charter leaders have been developing a strategy around this issue for months, even inviting L.A. schools Supt. Michelle King over for dinner to lay the groundwork for their case. They say charters are unfairly at risk of being closed for minor violations or bureaucratic issues that have little to do with how well they are teaching students.

King, who is on a medical leave, would not necessarily support streamlined oversight.

If Rodriguez expects to be forced from office, it has not been apparent. At Tuesday’s board meeting, he smiled, nodded enthusiastically and appeared fully engaged as teachers and children gave presentations. On social media, he has continued to post motivational messages and descriptions about his visits to schools.

In the campaign-finance case, prosecutors have charged Rodriguez with three felony and 25 misdemeanor counts, alleging that he illegally reimbursed 25 donors to his campaign. City ethics officials said such practices are against the law because they conceal the true source of a candidate’s support.

In a brief conversation before the board meeting, Rodriguez said he was unable to comment or answer questions.

He has received some good news on one front: a $75,000 contribution to his legal defense fund from Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings. Hastings made the contribution after the money-laundering charges were filed but before the latest allegations.

Since 2013, Hastings has provided more than $7.8 million to a political action committee used by the California Charter Schools Assn. to assist school board candidates in Los Angeles, according to state contribution records.

In an email to The Times, Hastings echoed the charter association in saying that school leaders must uphold the “highest ethical standards” — and noted that the allegations against Rodriguez “need thorough investigation.”

“I'm supporting his legal defense fund to ensure he gets the fair hearing that everyone deserves,” Hastings wrote.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

joy.resmovits@latimes.com

howard.blume@latimes.com

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