When Ref Rodriguez ran for his seat on the Los Angeles school board, opponents accused him of underpaying the lowest-wage workers at the charter-school group he helped found.
His supporters quickly countered with testimonials on mailers — from three of the charter schools' janitors.
"Don't believe the lies you've heard about Ref Rodriguez," one of them, Maria Hernandez, said in the mailer. "I have worked for Ref Rodriguez for 15 years and he has always done right by me."
These janitors who so wholeheartedly backed their boss also are connected to the criminal case now plaguing the school board member — who has been charged with three felonies and more than two dozen misdemeanors.
Prosecutors allege Rodriguez laundered $24,250 in campaign money by listing people — including these janitors — as individual donors to his campaign when he actually paid them back for the money they donated.
A charter school principal also gave a testimonial and is on the list of alleged reimbursed donors.
"This looks bad," said Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. When the same people who provided testimonials turn out to be employees who gave suspect donations, "at very least, it creates a politically damaging appearance of impropriety."
Rodriguez is holding on to his board seat but stepped down as board president last month, a week after he was charged. Since then, he's declined to discuss the case publicly.
The 2015 campaign between Rodriguez and incumbent Bennett Kayser was heated and sometimes got nasty.
Most of the low blows were paid for by outside groups, not controlled by the candidates. The pro-Rodriguez effort was spearheaded by the political arm of the California Charter Schools Assn., whose mailers falsely accused Kayser of trying "to stop Latino children from attending schools in white neighborhoods."
Kayser was trying to retain a seat in a district where a majority of voters are Latino. The teachers union, which supported him, fought back by trying to tar Rodriguez's reputation.
One attempt was a mailer, sent out in English and Spanish, asserting that "it would take a custodial worker at a Refugio Rodriguez school nearly 12 years to make what he pays himself every year."
The pro-Rodriguez campaign responded with the three janitors, misleadingly described as employees of the Los Angeles Unified School District. All were employees of Partnerships to Uplift Communities or PUC Schools, which was co-founded by Rodriguez. Though they are public schools, charters are independent organizations.
The mailers had janitor Carlos Villagomez allude to Kayser's opposition to some charter schools. "Bennett Kayser voted to close down great schools serving our community's poorest children," Villagomez was quoted as saying. "Now his allies are lying about how Ref Rodriguez treats his janitors."
Added fellow janitor Socorro Villagomez: "Ref Rodriguez's parents were janitors who hailed from Jalisco, Mexico, and who worked hard to put him through school. Ref knows as well as anybody how important it is to treat workers well."
In another flier, Carlos Villagomez — this time identified as an employee of Excel Academy, a PUC school — again accused Kayser of trying "close down great schools."
"If Bennett Kayser had his way," he said, "I wouldn't have a job and this school would be shut down. Ref Rodriguez has always had the best interest of the workers and the children at heart."
A third mailer relies on a testimonial from Nancy Villagomez, who is identified as a middle school principal. "Ref is a passionate advocate for helping all students — regardless of what neighborhood they live in — succeed," she said. "No candidate has done more to turn around failing schools and improve graduation rates."
Nancy Villagomez was — and still is — a principal at a PUC school. It is unclear whether she is related to the Villagomez janitors. She donated $900 to the Rodriguez campaign in late December 2014. In that same period, Carlos and Socorro Villagomez, who each earned about $10,000 from their PUC jobs in 2014, donated $1,000 apiece. Maria Hernandez donated $800. Rodriguez allegedly reimbursed all of these donations.
Of the 25 contributions to Rodriguez's campaign that prosecutors allege were illegal, 13 came from employees at Rodriguez's charter organization. Of these 13, as many as nine were relatives of Rodriguez, according to PUC administrators, who reviewed internal files in response to a public records request from The Times. Without identifying individuals, they said PUC employs 14 Rodriguez relatives in a workforce of 900.
Rodriguez left his $192,610-a-year position at PUC shortly after he joined the school board in 2015.
Kathy Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, an ethics watchdog group, said employee donors are worrisome.
"There's been a long history of coercion of employees to take political positions or make donations at the direction of their employers," Feng said. "There is a power relationship. A staff person might feel compelled to donate regardless of how they might feel personally about a candidate or a campaign."
In 2014, Rodriguez was a senior executive at PUC; his co-defendant in the alleged conspiracy is his cousin Elizabeth Tinajero Melendrez, who was a PUC administrator. According to prosecutors, Rodriguez asked Melendrez to solicit donors and then use his money to reimburse them.
PUC's other co-founder, Jacqueline Elliot, who remains a senior PUC executive, said she had no knowledge of any improper donations until the charges were filed.
It is not known whether Rodriguez or anyone in his campaign worked with the pro-charter group in obtaining the testimonials. Such coordination between a candidate's official campaign and an independent-expenditure campaign would be illegal but would be difficult to prove, experts say.
Nancy Villagomez did not respond to attempts to reach her Friday by phone and email. Maria Hernandez also could not be reached. Rodriguez did not respond to questions submitted Friday afternoon to his lawyer and his board office.
Approached outside their home as they got in their car Thursday, Carlos and Socorro Villagomez were less effusive than during the campaign.
Carlos Villagomez said they spoke no English, but both refused to answer questions posed in Spanish. Socorro Villagomez said they just worked at PUC and knew nothing about the criminal case. Carlos Villagomez said only their attorney could respond. They would not provide the name of their attorney.
"We have to go to work," Carlos Villagomez said in English, as they drove off.