If the lawyers for Ref Rodriguez and his cousin were trying to make their clients look better after they were accused of violating campaign finance laws, they could hardly have done a worse job. The president of the Los Angeles Unified school board and his cousin Elizabeth Tinajero Melendrez were charged Wednesday with felonies after accusations that they filed false campaign disclosures. As a candidate for school board two years ago, prosecutors say, Rodriguez reported that he had received more than $24,000 in contributions from family and friends whom he actually had reimbursed, in essence contributing the money to his own campaign.
"As I understand it, candidates fund their campaigns often," Rodriguez's lawyer, Daniel Nixon, said. "I think it's a question of simply the details, the nuances, concerning how that takes place."
"This is a harsh and draconian response to a minor alleged transgression," said Melendrez's lawyer, Mark J. Werksman.
Candidates for school board can openly spend as much of their own money as they want on their campaigns. What they can't do is pretend that it came from other contributors, creating the false impression that they have more widespread or grass-roots support than they really do. If that's indeed what happened, it's not a minor transgression and it's not simply a detail or nuance. Transparency and honesty in campaign documents are vital to democracy.
The pair are far from convicted, of course. And unless and until such a thing happens, Rodriguez has every legal right to retain his position on the board. He says he has been trying to work toward a solution with authorities, but he has neither confirmed nor denied any of the allegations against him, nor shared any details with the public. It would be helpful if he were more open about what happened, but he's under no obligation to do so.
Rodriguez needs to realize this much, though: If he cares about the students, parents and teachers of L.A. Unified as much as he says he does, he should pay close heed to how the charges against him affect his ability to do his job as president of the board. The accusations are so serious that they cast a shadow of distrust over the board and its dealings. As president, Rodriguez sits physically and metaphorically at the center of those dealings, and it will be hard for people not to focus on the accusations, rather than the issues at hand, with him in that seat.
At the very least, he needs to consider what's best for the district and whether it makes sense to remain in his leadership role. He may find, upon reflection, that the prudent move is to give up the presidency even before his case is resolved.