When Partnerships to Uplift Communities, a local charter school network, filed a complaint with a state agency alleging that Los Angeles school board member Ref Rodriguez may have violated conflict-of-interest laws, the evidence included a series of checks and check authorizations.
The Times obtained these documents through a Public Records Act request. The highlights of these documents are embedded below. The charter network, better known as PUC Schools, filed its complaint Friday with the state Fair Political Practices Commission.
The checks and other information laid out the case that Rodriguez, who co-founded the PUC charter network, may have been guilty of self-dealing when he transferred $265,000 in school funds to a nonprofit that he ran called Partners for Developing Futures.
An attorney representing PUC said that so far the charter network has found little to no evidence of services provided to schools in exchange for these payments. PUC Schools has requested an explanation from Rodriguez.
The state filing also raised questions about $20,400 in payments to a private company in which Rodriguez may have owned a stake.
Separately, Rodriguez faces three felony and 25 misdemeanor charges for campaign money laundering. A criminal complaint and a Los Angeles city ethics accusation allege that Rodriguez recruited donors to his successful 2015 school board campaign and then illegally reimbursed them.
Rodriguez has declined to discuss the criminal complaint and the conflict-of-interest allegations.
March and May 2014
Checks to Better 4 You Fundraising
PUC’s filing with the state raises questions about the two checks above. Rodriguez co-signed these checks — for a combined $20,400 — to a company called Better 4 You Fundraising in the first half of 2014.
In a candidate disclosure form he filed with the L.A. Ethics Commission in November 2014, Rodriguez disclosed that he owned a stake in that company.
It’s not clear when Rodriguez acquired a stake in Better 4 You Fundraising. It’s possible that he did not yet have an ownership interest when he signed the two checks.
But the documents raise the possibility that Rodriguez had a conflict of interest when he authorized a payment of public funds to this private firm.
PUC does not question the payments themselves. They appear to be linked to school fundraisers. The check from CALS Charter Middle School has a memo indicating “chocolate fundraiser.” Better 4 You Fundraising apparently was established to sell such goods as chocolate bars, taking a fee from the proceeds of the sales.
That check is co-signed by Nancy Villagomez, the school’s principal. Later that year, Villagomez donated $900 to Rodriguez’s campaign, a donation that would be included among the 25 in the money-laundering prosecution. (She also made two other contributions, totaling $600, that the city ethics commission did not cite in its case against Rodriguez.)
In a campaign mailer in 2015, Villagomez, identified as a middle school principal, provided a rousing testimonial on behalf of Rodriguez.
She did not respond to recent attempts to contact her.
On the other check, the company’s Chatsworth address also is associated with Better 4 You Meals (also known as Better 4 You Breakfast). Better 4 You Meals was the focus of an earlier conflict-of-interest probe involving PUC.
Better 4 You Meals and Better 4 You Fundraising had overlapping ownership or management, according to public records filed with the California secretary of state. But there is no indication in records reviewed by The Times that Rodriguez owned a share in Better 4 You Meals.
May 30, 2014
The first check to Partners for Developing Futures
The first check, above, was drawn on a school account. According to the filing, the fundamental problem is that Rodriguez signed and authorized the check and that the nonprofit he ran was the recipient of the funds. On this check, there is only Rodriguez’s signature.
An accompanying document (below) indicates that this check was authorized by Rodriguez and requested by Elizabeth (Liz) Melendrez, Rodriguez’s cousin, who was an administrator at PUC Schools. In PUC records reviewed by The Times, Melendrez is listed as the person who requested eight of the checks Rodriguez authorized, adding up to nearly $188,000.
Melendrez resigned from her job at PUC on Friday.
Melendrez also is a co-defendant in the unrelated political money-laundering case.
Her attorney, Mark J. Werksman, said his client has done nothing wrong. Regarding the transfers, he said Melendrez could not be held responsible because she had no authority either to approve the payments or force someone else to do so.
“Her role was purely secretarial in connection to these transactions,” Werksman said.
June 2, 2014
Six checks assigned to school accounts
The six checks below were written on the same day, June 2. All fall below the $50,000 threshold that would require approval by the PUC Schools board of directors. Related paperwork above lists the six checks and their total: $162,347.34. The three-letter code to the right indicates that each check is to be assigned as a cost to a designated school. The code “CAH,” for example, refers to CALS Early College High School.
All of these checks are to be paid to Partners for Developing Futures. The checks bear the signature or stamp of both PUC co-founders, Ref Rodriguez and Jacqueline Elliot.
Elliot had no immediate explanation for her signatures except to emphasize how much trust she had in Rodriguez.
“You’re talking about someone who’s created opportunities for thousands of children and who demonstrated a commitment day in and day out to acting in the best interest of students,” Elliot said in an email. “Ref’s track record was unquestioned.”
Elliot is one of the PUC officials who took responsibility for filing the FPPC complaint and notifying the Los Angeles Unified School District, which oversees most local charter schools.
June 3, 2014
Two checks drawn on school accounts
The day after signing six checks totaling $162,347.34, Rodriguez signed two more checks for $16,000 apiece that were drawn on school accounts. One school was CALS Early College High School and the second was CALS Charter Middle School.
Once again, the party being paid is Partners for Developing Futures.
Oct. 3, 2014
Five checks totaling $61,845
Below is the final set of checks, all dated Oct. 3, included in the filing to the state political oversight commission. The checks bear the signature or stamp of Rodriguez and Elliot.