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Op-Ed

Charges against Ref Rodriguez for a rookie mistake are all out of proportion

In 2014, a politically active real estate executive named Peter Barker was fined $170,000 by the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission for violating campaign finance laws by having his employees and their spouses make political donations to an array of candidates and reimbursing them, a practice known as campaign money-laundering. Barker cooperated with investigators and paid his fine. In the words of his attorney, Barker was “relieved to have the matter behind him.”

That same year, Refugio “Ref” Rodriguez, then a political novice running for the Los Angeles school board, allegedly reimbursed friends and family members for donating $24,250 to his campaign. Rodriguez won a seat on the board and then was elected LAUSD board president. Now, facing misdemeanor and felony criminal charges over the donations, he has stepped down as president, although he retains his board seat. Like Barker, Rodriguez was cooperating with the Ethics Commission in its investigation, according to his attorney. So why did the commission turn this case over to the district attorney for criminal charges?

If Rodriguez did what’s alleged — and so far he has not explicitly denied the charges — it’s not right, but versions of it happen all the time and rarely if ever result in criminal charges.

For a crime with no victim, the D.A.’s prosecution of Rodriguez seems especially harsh. He and his cousin, Elizabeth Tinajero Melendrez, are charged with 25 misdemeanors for the “assumed name” contributions. She is also charged with one felony; he is charged with three. According to the district attorney’s office, the felony charges grew out of a “conspiracy” to commit the crimes, “perjury” for signing his name to the campaign finance report listing the contributions and “procuring and offering a false or forged document.” In other words, the underlying crimes are misdemeanors, but the planning and the execution of it are felonies.

Based on a review of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission archive going back to 2003, its enforcement actions generally result in settlements and fines but not in charges. The L.A. County district attorney’s website reveals no other recent cases of anyone being criminally prosecuted for campaign money-laundering.

The laws that govern political donations exist for good reason. Transparency matters, and it’s important that everyone play by the same rules. In most cases, reimbursing donors is done to get around limits on donations. In Rodriguez’s case, however, there were no limits on personal contributions, so he could just as easily have donated the money in his own name, which makes a reimbursement scheme especially baffling.

In court, the prosecutor suggested that Rodriguez, who won his school board seat in March 2015 and was elected board president in July, wanted to create the illusion of strong and organic grass-roots support in advance of the first campaign-finance reporting period, which ended Dec. 31, 2014. But it’s noteworthy that the amount of money in question is insignificant in a race where all sides spent nearly $5 million.

Los Angeles is the second-largest school district in America and currently has more public charter schools than any other district in the country. The local teachers union and the charter community have been at war over the future of the district. Spending in the 2017 school board elections approached $15 million.

Rodriguez, the son of Mexican immigrants, is a charter school founder and advocate for public school choice. His election to the seven-member LAUSD board, over a union-backed candidate, along with the subsequent election of three more “pro-reform” candidates in May, created the majority that resulted in Rodriguez’s becoming president.

When Rodriguez took over board leadership, he extended an olive branch to the union, vowing to “work together” and insisting that “divisiveness has no place” in Los Angeles. “Unity and dignity are vital,” he said.

I have met Rodriguez a few times and find him humble, sincere and polite. That doesn’t make him innocent, but I don’t understand why these minor violations of local campaign finance laws have triggered criminal charges.

If the allegations are true, Rodriguez clearly made a rookie mistake, and, like hundreds of others who have violated campaign finance regulations, he should pay his fines. He has already been forced out of a deserved LAUSD leadership role; however, if he is forced to step down from the board, his prosecution could seriously undermine the reform agenda demanded by the voters of Los Angeles.

Rodriguez is an expert advocate for high-quality education, not an expert politician. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that he got the book thrown at him simply because he was elected board president.

Peter Cunningham is the executive director of Education Post, a national nonprofit supporting charter schools and other efforts to improve public education. He is a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education during President Obama’s first term.

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