School board chief fac­ing charges

Ref Ro­driguez is ac­cused of giv­ing $24,000 to his own cam­paign dis­guised as in­di­vid­ual do­na­tions.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Anna M. Phillips, David Zah­niser and Howard Blume

Los An­ge­les school board Pres­i­dent Ref Ro­driguez was charged Wed­nes­day with three felony counts of con­spir­acy, per­jury and procur­ing and of­fer­ing a false or forged in­stru­ment, the re­sult of a months-long in­ves­ti­ga­tion by lo­cal au­thor­i­ties into do­na­tions to his suc­cess­ful first-time run for of­fice in 2015.

The charges against Ro­driguez, 46, whose District 5 stretches from Los Feliz to South Gate, were de­tailed in a 14-page crim­i­nal com­plaint filed by the L.A. County district at­tor­ney’s of­fice.

Pros­e­cu­tors ac­cused Ro­driguez of giv­ing more than $24,000 to his own cam­paign, while il­le­gally rep­re­sent­ing that the do­na­tions had been made by more than two dozen other con­trib­u­tors.

The al­le­ga­tions come at a high point in Ro­driguez’s po­lit­i­cal ca­reer. Elected board pres­i­dent in July, he cur­rently pre­sides over the first L.A. school board ma­jor­ity dom­i­nated by mem­bers who were, like him, elected with ma­jor fi­nan­cial sup­port from char­ter school ad­vo­cates.

Ro­driguez at first de­clined to com­ment, but late Wed­nes­day the school district is­sued a state­ment from him in which he de­fended his in­ten­tions and sug­gested that he would stay on as board pres­i­dent.

“As the prod­uct of an im­mi­grant fam­ily, no­body has more re­spect for the in­tegrity of the Amer­i­can jus­tice sys­tem than I do. I have co­op­er­ated with au­thor­i­ties and hope th­ese is­sues will be re­solved ex­pe­di­tiously and fairly,” Ro­driguez said. “Above all, my com­mit­ment to the stu­dents, teach­ers, par­ents and fam­i­lies of Los An­ge­les re­mains un­wa­ver­ing.”

The case against Ro­driguez grew out of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Los An­ge­les City Ethics Com­mis­sion, which fo­cused on do­na­tions to his 2015 cam­paign. The com­mis­sion ac­cused Ro­driguez of “cam­paign money

laun­der­ing” and re­ferred its find­ings to the district at­tor­ney’s of­fice.

The crim­i­nal com­plaint says that in late 2014, shortly af­ter he filed to run for of­fice, Ro­driguez cashed out a $26,000 busi­ness in­vest­ment. He gave a check in that amount to his cousin, who was a cam­paign vol­un­teer, along with in­struc­tions on what to do with the money, the com­plaint says.

The cousin, El­iz­a­beth Ti­na­jero Me­len­drez, 45, is sus­pected of de­posit­ing the money into a bank ac­count un­der the names of Ro­driguez’s par­ents. Then, the com­plaint says, the can­di­date’s mother signed 16 checks, mak­ing them out to friends and fam­ily mem­bers who were listed as donors to her son’s cam­paign.

Ac­cord­ing to the com­plaint, Me­len­drez de­liv­ered those checks as well as cash re­im­burse­ments to peo­ple who had made con­tri­bu­tions.

Me­len­drez ul­ti­mately per­suaded 25 peo­ple, most of them Ro­driguez’s rel­a­tives and friends, to par­tic­i­pate by telling them their con­tri­bu­tions would be re­im­bursed, ac­cord­ing to a 10page for­mal ac­cu­sa­tion re­leased by the ethics com­mis­sion on Wed­nes­day. Each gave be­tween $775 and $1,100, for a to­tal of $24,250.

At the end of that re­port­ing pe­riod, Ro­driguez submitted records “cer­ti­fied un­der penalty of per­jury” show­ing he had raised $51,001 in in­di­vid­ual do­na­tions, the doc­u­ment says. “How­ever, nearly half of the re­ported funds were ac­tu­ally Ro­driguez’s own money.”

He re­ported his per­sonal con­tri­bu­tion as $1,100.

Me­len­drez, like her cousin, was charged with one felony count of con­spir­acy to com­mit as­sumed-name con­tri­bu­tion. Both she and Ro­driguez also were charged with 25 mis­de­meanor counts of as­sumed-name con­tri­bu­tion. They are to be ar­raigned Oct. 24.

If convicted on the felony counts, Ro­driguez faces a pos­si­ble max­i­mum sen­tence of four years and four months. Me­len­drez could serve up to three years.

Daniel Nixon, a lawyer for Ro­driguez, sug­gested his client would be able to work through his le­gal prob­lems.

“As I un­der­stand it, can­di­dates fund their cam­paigns of­ten,” Nixon said. “I think it’s a ques­tion of sim­ply the de­tails, the nu­ances, con­cern­ing how that takes place.”

Mark J. Werks­man, a lawyer for Me­len­drez, said “This is a harsh and dra­co­nian re­sponse to a mi­nor al­leged trans­gres­sion.”

City cam­paign fi­nance records show that among the group of peo­ple the com­mis­sion said Ro­driguez used to laun­der his money, at least a dozen worked for the Los An­ge­les-based char­ter school or­ga­ni­za­tion Ro­driguez co-founded, Part­ner­ships to Up­lift Com­mu­ni­ties, com­monly known as PUC Schools. They in­cluded a jan­i­tor, a tu­tor and a par­ent or­ga­nizer, each of whom do­nated $1,100 — the le­gal limit.

Cases like the one out­lined in the com­mis­sion’s re­port on Ro­driguez are highly un­usual. Of­ten, it is a donor — not the can­di­date — who is ac­cused of fun­nel­ing money into a cam­paign through con­tri­bu­tions from busi­ness part­ners, rel­a­tives or em­ploy­ees who are re­im­bursed.

And once the ethics com­mis­sion presents the ac­cused with ev­i­dence of wrong­do­ing, the case is com­monly wrapped up in a set­tle­ment be­fore it’s re­vealed to the pub­lic. The of­fender agrees to pay a fine and moves on.

But in this case, that did not hap­pen.

Ro­driguez and Me­len­drez were shown the com­mis­sion’s find­ings in May, ac­cord­ing to the re­port, but no set­tle­ment was reached.

The com­mis­sion’s op­tions in re­spond­ing to cam­paign fi­nance law vi­o­la­tions are rel­a­tively nar­row. It can levy penal­ties of up to $5,000 per vi­o­la­tion, or three times the amount of money un­law­fully con­trib­uted to the cam­paign or re­fer the find­ings to the Los An­ge­les County district at­tor­ney’s of­fice.

The money Ro­driguez is al­leged to have laun­dered made up a small frac­tion of his over­all cam­paign haul.

In 2015, he faced two chal­lengers, in­cum­bent Bennett Kayser, who had the back­ing of the lo­cal teach­ers union, and An­drew Thomas, an ed­u­ca­tional con­sul­tant and L.A. Uni­fied par­ent. Of the three, Ro­driguez raised the most, ul­ti­mately bring­ing in $284,000 for his school board bid. He also ben­e­fited from $2.3 mil­lion in in­de­pen­dent ex­pen­di­tures, mostly from char­ter school back­ers — spend­ing that was not con­trolled by his cam­paign.

Cam­paign con­sul­tant Mike Shim­pock, whose firm has worked on L.A. Uni­fied school board cam­paigns in the past, said the idea of re­im­burs­ing donors “just seems to­tally ir­ra­tional” given the dy­nam­ics of the 2015 elec­tion.

Can­di­dates are per­mit­ted to give as much money as they want to their own cam­paigns, and it was well known in De­cem­ber 2014 that Ro­driguez was likely to re­ceive ma­jor fi­nan­cial sup­port from char­ter school back­ers, Shim­pock said.

“Ev­ery­body knew go­ing in that he was the char­ter school guy. He could have shown 35 cents in his ac­count and they would have spent what­ever it took on his be­half,” said Shim­pock, whose firm was not in­volved in the Ro­driguez con­test.

Kayser, who lost his re­elec­tion bid to Ro­driguez, said he and his sup­port­ers had sus­pi­cions about his op­po­nent’s con­tri­bu­tion re­ports dur­ing the cam­paign. The list, he said, had cus­to­di­ans and oth­ers whom “you wouldn’t ex­pect to make $1,000 do­na­tions.”

The charges could deal a se­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal blow to Ro­driguez and the slim prochar­ter school ma­jor­ity on the school board.

In May, two can­di­dates sup­ported by char­ter school ad­vo­cates won their elec­tions, tip­ping the bal­ance of power away from pub­lic sec­tor unions. The shift was dra­matic, and it was the re­sult of a $17-mil­lion cam­paign — the most ex­pen­sive school board cam­paign ever — in which unions rep­re­sent­ing district em­ploy­ees and wealthy, pro-char­ter donors com­peted for in­flu­ence.

L.A. Uni­fied gen­eral coun­sel David Holmquist said the school district was aware of the charges against Ro­driguez.

“Th­ese al­le­ga­tions are not con­nected to any district busi­ness. How­ever, we will co­op­er­ate, as needed, with the district at­tor­ney’s of­fice,” he said in a state­ment.

‘This is a harsh and dra­co­nian re­sponse to a mi­nor al­leged trans­gres­sion.’ —Mark J. Werks­man lawyer for El­iz­a­beth Ti­na­jero Me­len­drez, charged with school board chief, her cousin, in an ethics in­ves­ti­ga­tion

Brian van der Brug Los An­ge­les Times

LOS AN­GE­LES school board Pres­i­dent Ref Ro­driguez , center, was charged Wed­nes­day with three felony counts of con­spir­acy, per­jury and procur­ing and of­fer­ing a false or forged in­stru­ment.

Brian van der Brug Los An­ge­les Times

EL­IZ­A­BETH TI­NA­JERO ME­LEN­DREZ, a cousin of Ref Ro­driguez, is charged with a felony count of con­spir­acy to com­mit as­sumed-name con­tri­bu­tion and 25 mis­de­meanor counts of as­sumed-name con­tri­bu­tion.

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