Los Angeles school board member Ref Rodriguez pleaded guilty Monday to a felony count of conspiracy and resigned from office, marking a dramatic fall for a widely admired educator who became the first charter schools executive elected to the Board of Education.
Rodriguez, 47, was once the leader of the charter school-backed majority that took over the board a year ago after the nation’s most expensive school board elections ever.
But two months after becoming school board president, the criminal charges compelled him to step back — giving up his presidency but retaining his seat amid the distractions of defending himself.
Under the deal with prosecutors, Rodriguez will avoid jail time. Instead, he will get three years’ probation and 60 days of community service.
Rodriguez also pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor counts of assumed-name contribution. In doing so, he admitted that he was part of a scheme to conceal that he was the true source of early donations to his campaign.
“It has been the honor of my life to serve the communities of Board District 5 as their L.A. Unified board member,” Rodriguez wrote on his Twitter feed. “I have spent my adult life working to improve educational conditions for students who come from neighborhoods like the one where I grew up, with parents who worked hard like mine did for me.”
This work, he said, will continue: “I will just pursue that work from a different position.”
On Monday, board member Kelly Gonez, who also was elected with charter support, said it was time for Rodriguez to go.
“Given his transgressions, it is right that he is stepping down,” Gonez said. “From the national to the local level, the integrity of the democratic process is fundamental.”
Rodriguez had faced three felony charges and 25 misdemeanor counts and could have received several years in prison if convicted.
Just over a year ago, Rodriguez was selected president of the seven-member Board of Education by a 4-to-3 margin. He became president as a result of a first-ever majority elected with substantial financial support from charter school backers.
Charter schools are independently operated and compete with L.A. Unified for students — and for the government funds that follow them. Los Angeles has more charters and more charter students — about 18% of district enrollment — than any other school system.
Many charter enthusiasts had long believed that the district treated their schools unfairly in terms of sharing campuses and other resources. They saw the rise of Rodriguez as the herald of a new day.
But the campaign finance problems surfaced within months of his becoming board president. Rodriguez had known about the investigation for as long as two years but had kept the matter secret from his colleagues, according to school board members.
Two other members of the charter-backed bloc announced Monday that they favored calling a special election to replace Rodriguez “as soon as we can.”
The statement, from President Monica Garcia and board member Nick Melvoin, also talked of possibly appointing a temporary replacement with voting powers.
To settle the charges against him, Rodriguez had to make two deals. Besides the court plea, Rodriguez also had to resolve an enforcement action by the city’s Ethics Commission, which oversees local elections.
That matter also was settled Monday, when the Ethics Commission unanimously approved a deal under which Rodriguez and his collaborator in the funding scheme, Elizabeth Melendrez, agreed to pay a joint $100,000 fine to the ethics body.
Melendrez and Rodriguez are equally liable for the fine, said Kirsten Pickenpaugh, the acting director of enforcement for the commission.
Jim Sutton, an attorney for Rodriguez and Melendrez, told the commission that Rodriguez “takes full responsibility” and would pay the fine on behalf of Melendrez.
In an ethics filing posted Friday afternoon, Rodriguez admitted that he “engaged in money laundering to further his 2015 campaign for a seat on the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education.”
The ethics filing describes in some detail what happened, investigators said.
Late in 2014, Rodriguez, who was then a senior executive at a charter school organization, was putting together his first run for office.
That December, he instructed Melendrez, his cousin, to enlist contributors and later reimburse them with Rodriguez’s money. Melendrez worked under Rodriguez as an administrator in the same charter school organization.
Rodriguez held an event at a family member’s residence later that month to announce his candidacy. During the event, he asked family and friends for support.
Afterward, Melendrez promised contributors that Rodriguez would reimburse them. From Dec. 23 through Dec. 31, Rodriguez’s family and friends, including employees under his supervision, made 25 campaign contributions ranging from $775 to $1,100. The contributors included low-wage custodians for the charter schools, and their donations totaled $24,350.
Soon after, on Jan. 15, Rodriguez attended mandatory Ethics Commission training for candidates. It included a detailed discussion of city law regarding contributions, including prohibitions on money laundering.
Rodriguez declined to come forward. Had he done so, the fallout could have derailed his campaign.
Instead, when Rodriguez filed his first campaign statement, he reported raising $51,001. Nearly half of that was the laundered contributions. In the same reporting period, school board member Bennett Kayser reported raising $13,739, and another challenger, Andrew Thomas, reported raising $10,732.
Kayser already was a prominent candidate as the incumbent and as the favorite of the powerful teachers union. Thomas, for his part, was a parent activist who represented competition for Rodriguez as the leading challenger to Kayser. Thomas had already lent his campaign $51,000. Rodriguez had the opportunity to stand out more if major funding came from community members rather than from his own resources.
“Rodriguez’s first public disclosure statement identified him as having received more contributions in that reporting period than any other candidate in the LAUSD District 5 race,” the Ethics Commission said.
Rodriguez could have contributed the money openly and legally to his own campaign. It is against the law to disguise the source of campaign donations.
The violations “were deliberate, and Rodriguez knowingly received and made use of laundered funds during the election,” the filing states. The actions reflected “an intent to conceal, deceive and mislead.”
Ultimately, Rodriguez emerged as the favored candidate of wealthy charter school supporters and an independent campaign on his behalf raised millions of dollars.
A whistleblower filed a complaint in March 2015, about two months before Rodriguez was elected, but the issue did not become public until nearly 2½ years later.
Melendrez, 45, pleaded guilty Monday to four misdemeanor counts of assumed-name contribution. She also will serve 60 days of community service and three years’ probation, although her probation — unlike that of Rodriguez — will not be court-supervised.
A spokesman for the district attorney’s office said the convictions would not have required Rodriguez to step down. And both sides also said that the plea deal did not hinge on Rodriguez’s resignation.
The legal troubles for Rodriquez are not necessarily over. Sources tell The Times that the U.S. attorney’s office has looked into unrelated conflict-of-interest allegations against him.
Those allegations arose when his former employer, Partnerships to Uplift Communities, or PUC Schools, reported that Rodriguez had a conflict of interest when he authorized more than $285,000 in payments.
The payments were made from PUC to a separate nonprofit under Rodriguez’s control and to a private business in which Rodriguez may have owned an interest.
Through his attorney, Rodriguez has denied wrongdoing regarding the alleged conflict of interest.