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Santa Monica school leader voted on contracts with firms that did business with her husband, documents show

A Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board member has been casting votes that benefited construction management and financial advisory companies without disclosing that her husband does business with those firms, school board records as well as sworn testimony show.

Maria Leon-Vazquez’s votes could violate state conflict-of-interest laws, according to experts on those laws. Public officials are prohibited from being financially interested in contracts made with their agencies, said Steve Cooley, former Los Angeles County district attorney.

Leon-Vazquez’s husband is Santa Monica Councilman Tony Vazquez, a political consultant who is also campaigning for a state Board of Equalization seat. Neither returned calls seeking comment.

Vazquez testified in a sworn deposition a year ago that he has been a paid consultant to TELACU Construction Management and Keygent LLC, two firms that have won contracts with the district.

He testified that he was paid to arrange meetings with officials of school districts so these companies could pitch their services. This included a meeting he set up three years ago between a TELACU executive and then Santa Monica-Malibu Superintendent Sandra Lyon, according to the deposition. He also said that his income from TELACU started at $1,000 per month but peaked at $8,000 a month around the same time he was asked to arrange the meeting between TELACU and Lyon, according to the deposition.

The councilman said in the deposition that this would not pose a conflict of interest because his wife told him “she was going to recuse herself anyways” if a vote involving TELACU ever came before the board. Vazquez said “their attorneys” didn’t see a problem with the votes, but that his wife would recuse herself to cure a “perception issue.” It’s unclear whose attorneys Vazquez was referring to.

But Leon-Vazquez voted this year to approve TELACU as an “on-call” contractor and also cast votes for a contract to upgrade facilities at elementary schools worth up to $174,000, according to board minutes.

Leon-Vazquez also cast several votes related to Keygent, which employed her husband between 2008 and 2013 to help sell a health benefits review service. The minutes show that she voted on July 14, 2010, to approve a contract with Keygent to review the health benefits of its employees for possible savings — the kind of service her husband testified he was being paid to help pitch to school districts.

She also voted for a financial consulting contract with the company worth up to $241,000, the minutes show. And over several years she cast votes on work involving the company, which paid her husband between $1,500 and $2,500 per month, Vazquez testified and a Keygent advisor confirmed.

The Keygent advisor, Nathan Ballard, pointed to a clause in the company’s contracts with the district disclosing its relationship with Vazquez & Associates as evidence that the company was being transparent. The clause said Vazquez & Associates’ work for Keygent was unrelated to the district.

Elected officials like the couple are legally required under a state law known as the Political Reform Act to disclose income from companies doing business in their jurisdictions, said Jay Wierenga, a spokesman with the Fair Political Practices Commission. Those disclosures are supposed to appear on public statements of financial interests filed every year.

Since at least 2014, neither Vazquez nor Leon-Vazquez has disclosed income from TELACU on those forms, a Times review of the documents found. This was despite Vazquez testifying last November that TELACU was at that time paying him $3,000 monthly.

Vazquez did disclose in 2013, the first year the newly elected councilman was required to file, that TELACU and Keygent were clients of his firm Vazquez and Associates Inc.

The Times reviewed a decade of disclosure forms filed by Leon-Vazquez, and she has not included income from either company.

Ballard said Vazquez wasn’t involved in setting up meetings between district officials and the company. The statements also said that “members of Keygent’s team had already been working with the District for a number of years prior to any relationship with Tony Vazquez.”

Ballard also said the company had notified district officials that it had hired Vazquez’s firm, and that the councilman provided “conflicts of interest certifications” to the company that included promises that he would disclose to Keygent possible conflicts of interest.

He added that Vazquez was paid to make introductions between Keygent and officials of between five and 10 other school districts as well as other cities, but declined to name them.

Vasquez’s deposition was part of an ongoing lawsuit against the city under the California Voting Rights Act alleging that the city’s election system discriminates against Latinos. Under questioning from Kevin Shenkman, one of the attorneys in the suit, Vazquez said he told the firms he could facilitate sit-downs with high-ranking officials by “using basically my relationships to set up a meeting.”

He testified that he saw no conflict of interest in working for TELACU or helping the company gain a foothold with his wife’s school district, because he was not the one “pitching” the deal and because she was not present at the meeting he arranged. That meeting included TELACU executive Jay Bell and Lyon.

TELACU officials did not respond to calls for comment.

Lyon told the Times that she recalled Vazquez introducing her to TELACU executives, and said the councilman did not tell her he was being paid by the company. She said what the school board member’s husband did for a living was always a mystery, and that when she asked other people, they didn’t know either.

Had she known about Vazquez being a paid consultant to companies looking to do business with the district, she said, she would have objected.

Vazquez told the Santa Monica Lookout News site that he did not know he was required to report income from TELACU, and said he would amend the disclosure forms. The Lookout reported last week that he had not disclosed the income from the construction management company.

The superintendent who served before Lyon, Tim Cuneo, also told the Times that Vazquez never told him about his consulting work.

Recently appointed Supt. Ben Drati said in a prepared statement that he “was not aware of any conflicts” during his 10 months with the school district.

“However, I take this situation seriously,” Drati said. “My next steps will be guided by facts and the law."

Cooley, the former district attorney, said the arrangement raises serious questions about California conflict of interest laws.

“What has to be done in a situation like that is for an inquiry to be opened to ascertain if there truly is any financial gain to the person or the spouse of the person who is making material decisions on that transaction in question and benefiting financially,” Cooley said. “After that inquiry is conducted and it appears that a violation of [the conflict of interest law] has occurred, then a more formal investigation and gathering of evidence would likely ensue.”

Benjamin.Oreskes@latimes.com

@boreskes

Adam.Elmahrek@latimes.com

@adamelmahrek

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