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Prosecutors widen inquiry into possible conflicts of interest involving Santa Monica politicians

Prosecutors widen inquiry into possible conflicts of interest involving Santa Monica politicians
Tony Vazquez listens during a Santa Monica City Council meeting in 2015. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Prosecutors reviewing possible conflicts of interest involving Santa Monica politicians have widened their inquiry to include architecture work performed at a home belonging to a school board member and a city councilman, a spokeswoman with the district attorney's office confirmed this week.

Meanwhile, the state's Fair Political Practices Commission has opened its own investigation into the politicians' business ties, an FPPC spokesman told The Times.

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The Los Angeles County district attorney's office first launched its inquiry in November after a Times article detailed how Maria Leon-Vazquez — a board member overseeing Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District — cast several votes approving hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts with her husband's consulting clients.

She also did not disclose the income from her husband's consulting firm on almost a decade worth of state-required financial disclosure filings, The Times found. She had been disclosing the income but stopped with the 2009 filing — the same year her husband's clients started winning contracts with the district.

Maria Leon-Vazquez, a board member overseeing Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.
Maria Leon-Vazquez, a board member overseeing Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

The review by the office's public integrity unit, which investigates municipal corruption, expanded after The Times raised questions about architecture services provided to Leon-Vazquez and her husband Tony Vazquez, who is also a city councilman.

The couple renovated their home in the early 2000s, adding a second floor and remodeling the first floor and basement, according to building permits filed with City Hall. Their architect on the job was Ralph Mechur, who would soon receive school district work and also be appointed to the school board.

"Shortly after" Mechur finished the remodel design, Leon-Vazquez cast votes awarding school district purchase orders to Mechur to provide architecture services, a school district attorney told the board earlier this month. She also voted to appoint Mechur to the school board in 2007.

At first Mechur told The Times that he charged the couple fair market rate for his services and said he would provide the newspaper with records showing the amount they paid. He later refused to provide the records or specify the rate he charged, but insisted that the couple did not receive a discount.

If the couple did receive a discount — a question D.A. spokeswoman Shiara Davila-Morales confirmed prosecutors are exploring — that could be construed under state law as an illegal gift and could also make her votes for the architect's purchase orders illegal.

The school district initiated its own investigation after The Times article and found that Leon-Vazquez voted on nine separate occasions to approve contracts with two of her husband's clients — TELACU Construction Management and the financial advisory firm Keygent LLC.

The Times later found that the school district's investigative summary incorrectly alleged that Leon-Vazquez voted for five contracts related to TELACU, when in fact she voted for three. School district spokeswoman Gail Pinsker acknowledged the error and issued a revised report.

The investigative summary stopped short of concluding whether Leon-Vazquez broke the law. That determination would have to come from the district attorney's office or FPPC, school district leaders said.

The companies in question had paid Vazquez to help them win contracts at school districts by leveraging his personal relationships with high-level school executives to arrange meetings, Vazquez said in a sworn deposition obtained by The Times.

In 2014 he arranged a meeting between a Santa Monica-Malibu superintendent and TELACU executives, he testified. The school district's former chief business official also said Vazquez attended a meeting with her about construction management and financial advisory work. She said she could not recall which companies were discussed.

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