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Column: A rookie mistake, or a premeditated strategy? The actions of LAUSD’s ex-school board president still leave some wondering

The new Los Angeles school board, the first with a pro-charter majority, meets for the first time Ju
Ref Rodriguez, center, who is facing felony charges on allegations of campaign money laundering, resigned as L.A. school board president but retained his board seat.
(Los Angeles Times)

Should a man who’s been charged with a lunch bucket full of crimes, including three felonies, keep his job as a board member for the nation’s second-largest public school district?

The L.A. Unified teachers union thinks not.

“These charges are more than a distraction from the work that needs to be done to put our students first,” United Teachers Los Angeles Vice President Cecily Myart-Cruz said yesterday at district headquarters in a blistering attack on board member Ref Rodriguez.

“Lead by example,” Myart-Cruz blared. “Recuse yourself from this vote and resign from the board.”

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Rodriguez did neither. Last week, he resigned his chairmanship but kept his board seat.

But it’s not as if Rodriguez has no defenders. The chief of a nonprofit that advocates for charter schools — which Rodriguez has championed — argued in a Times op-ed that the charges against Rodriguez are overblown and he should stay on the board.

“If the allegations are true, Rodriguez clearly made a rookie mistake,” said the op-ed, which called Rodriguez a humble, sincere and polite political novice who should pay fines if he broke the law but not lose his job.

A rookie mistake? Here’s my take:

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If you field a double off the wall in the right field corner, wildly fling the ball over the head of the cutoff man and give up an extra base, that’s a rookie mistake.

If you pull someone over on your first night as a cop, forget to put your patrol car in park and then watch it roll over your foot as you’re writing a ticket, that’s a rookie mistake.

Rodriguez is charged with taking $26,000 of his own money and redistributing it through an intermediary to 25 people, mostly friends and relatives — who donated $24,250 to his 2015 campaign for school board.

What’s that smell like to you?

A rookie mistake, or a premeditated strategy to work around campaign law?

The L.A. district attorney’s office, which has filed 25 misdemeanor charges along with the three felonies, seems to think Rodriguez pulled off a money-laundering scheme.

And here’s the most interesting thing about the case:

If Rodriguez had donated the $26,000 to himself, that would have been legal because there’s no limit on how much you can dump into your own campaign.

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So this leaves the jaded among us to wonder if Rodriguez —who has admitted to nothing, and whose lawyer did not return my call — wanted it to appear as if he had support from ordinary people, rather than just the charter-advocating high-rollers who bankrolled his campaign.

If so, here are some pointers for future reference:

Tip 1: If you want to make it look as if you’re a strong enough candidate to attract donations from working people, try to find more working stiffs who aren’t relatives or employees at the charter school organization you founded.

Tip 2. Janitors and tutors do not typically donate between $775 and $1,100 to school board candidates, and when they do, it raises suspicion.

Tip 3. Never, ever, drag your own mother into a harebrained, bone-head scheme, even if your name is Soprano. There is no way to reverse that kind of bad karma.

As prosecutors lay it out, Rodriguez cashed out a business investment and wrote the $26,000 check to a female cousin, who has also been criminally charged. The cousin — an administrator at the charter school Rodriguez started — is suspected of depositing the money into a bank account under the names of Rodriguez’s parents. Prosecutors say Rodriguez’s mother then signed 16 checks for friends and family members who were listed as donors to her son’s campaign.

I know, innocent until proven guilty. But this sounds like one hell of a rookie “mistake.” And if you’re someone who frets about awkward conversation at family gatherings during the holidays, just thank the holy gobbler you’re not spending Thanksgiving with the Rodriguez clan this year.

In giving up the chairmanship, Rodriguez said he remains committed to a “kids-first agenda” and “I do not want to serve as a distraction” to colleagues, teachers, principals and employees.

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Yeah, nice try. He’s a target for critics, he’s a liability for charter advocates and he’s not really any less of a distraction as a board member than he would have been as chair. As long as he stays on, you can’t help but think that a man who might have committed one of the dumbest crimes in local history is still making big decisions on the welfare of several hundred thousand students.

“If you truly believe in putting kids first,” elementary school teacher Karla Griego told Rodriguez at Tuesday’s meeting, “then do the right thing … Stand for our kids and step down.”

“It’s just embarrassing,” Karen Wolfe, a Westside parent and volunteer who organizes parent engagement at L.A. Unified schools, told me by phone.

“Every school I go into, people are whispering about this,” she added, saying the scandal makes it awkward to ask business leaders and others to get involved in fundraising or anything else. “You can’t ask for support without apologizing for the district.”

L.A. Unified pulls off daily miracles because at any given time thousands of people are doing solid work despite crushing challenges and head-slapping leadership failures.

Recent years have seen the FBI-probed iPad scandal, the student tracking system debacle, a revolving door in the superintendent’s office and an enduring scorched-earth war between charter forces and the teachers union, with school board races that are obscenely expensive and grotesquely sleazy. Neither side in that war has all the answers, in my humble opinion, and the greatest collective failure is the lack of compromise and collaboration.

This year’s elections gave the charter champs their long-sought majority. Then the so-called “reformers” handed the chairmanship to Rodriguez, who apparently did not inform any of his colleagues that he had been under investigation for two years.

Must have been a rookie mistake.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Rodriguez cast a vote in favor of Monica Garcia, who took over as chairman with a one-vote majority. Garcia jumped up, unable to restrain her glee, and slid into the chair’s seat with a broad smile, as if she expected someone to strike up the band.

Rodriguez sat glumly, half there and half gone, trapped in a limbo of his own making. You had to wonder if he might be thinking that for a man in his shoes, the best of the bad options is to walk.

Get more of Steve Lopez’s work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez

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