Can this school board member be saved?
Ref Rodriguez, who was the president of the Los Angeles Unified school board, was charged last month with three felonies. According to prosecutors, he engaged in money laundering by reimbursing donors for nearly $25,000 in contributions to his campaign for the board. He quickly resigned his position as president, though he stayed on the board. But he offered not a single word of explanation to the public.
Now, new allegations are swirling. The charter school organization that Rodriguez co-founded has filed accusations against him with the state Fair Political Practices Commission. Rodriguez allegedly withdrew $285,000 in 2014 from accounts of the charter group Partnership to Uplift Communities, in amounts small enough not to trigger oversight by the group’s board. Most of that money, the group claims, went to a separate nonprofit organization controlled directly by Rodriguez, with little or no accounting of how the money was being used to benefit the schools. No criminal charges have been filed, but the FPPC could eventually refer the matter for criminal prosecution, depending on the outcome of its investigation. Again, Rodriguez has not responded to questions.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez’s cousin, who worked for the partnership and requested $188,000 worth of those checks, was allowed to resign from the group on Friday. She also faces criminal charges in the money laundering case.
Rodriguez hasn’t been convicted of anything; the allegations are still just allegations — and The Times editorial board believes people should be considered innocent until they’re proven otherwise. So he has the right to continue receiving his paychecks while the accusations against him are being investigated.
But there are a couple of caveats to that. For one thing, he no longer can remain tight-lipped while such serious allegations are circulating about his financial and campaign dealings. He owes schoolchildren, their parents and the voters answers about the accusations that have been made.
Maybe he can explain it all, quickly producing a set of receipts showing all the ways in which the $285,000 was used legally and transparently to benefit schools and students.
But if he can’t — or won’t — offer an open and persuasive explanation, Rodriguez won’t be able to function successfully on the relatively small and tightknit board that sets policy for all the schools in the district. His legal woes will erode trust in him and in anything he might try to accomplish, especially when it concerns the district’s finances. When he speaks or votes, it will be hard for the audience to put aside the extraordinary allegations against him. The unresolved charges will create turmoil on the board, hanging darkly above the dais during meetings and casting a shadow on discussions of policy and budget. That’s not good for students, who need to be the school district’s first priority. If he can’t beat back that lack of trust with a clear explanation, Rodriguez needs to get off the board. At a minimum he should take a leave from the board until the investigation is concluded.