Los Angeles

LAUSD Board Member Pleads Guilty in Campaign Money Laundering Conspiracy

He is facing three felony and 25 misdemeanor counts -- including perjury, conspiracy and falsifying documents

Los Angeles Unified School District board member Ref Rodriguez pleaded guilty Monday to a felony conspiracy charge and four misdemeanors for reimbursing donors to his 2015 election campaign, and he resigned from the board.

"I am sorry for the mistakes I have made," Rodriguez said in a statement. Under a plea agreement with prosecutors, he was placed on three years probation and ordered to serve 60 days community service.

Rodriguez, 47, also reached a settlement Monday with the city Ethics Commission, admitting that he carried out a money-laundering scheme by reimbursing 25 people who donated money to his campaign. According to prosecutors, Rodriguez raised more than $50,000 during the first campaign reporting period that ended in December 2014 and 25 donors -- most of whom were family members and friends -- were allegedly paid back $24,250 by Rodriguez and his cousin, Elizabeth Melendrez.

The donors' names had been listed on a campaign finance report that was signed by Rodriguez under the penalty of perjury and submitted to the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission. Rodriguez would have been allowed by law to donate the money to his own campaign directly, but the scheme appeared to be an effort to make his financial support from donors look stronger than it really was.

According to Ethics Commission documents, shortly after Rodriguez began his campaign for the school board seat in November 2014, he "provided $26,000 of his own money to Melendrez, a key campaign volunteer, with instructions to funnel that money into his campaign account by asking family members to make contributions."

Melendrez pleaded guilty Monday to four misdemeanor counts of assumed- name contributions and was also sentenced to three years probation and 60 days community service. Rodriguez pleaded guilty to a felony conspiracy charge and four misdemeanor counts of assumed-name contributions, and he resigned from the LAUSD board.

"It has been the honor of my life to serve the communities of Board District 5 as their L.A. Unified board member," he said. "I have spent my adult life working to improve educational conditions for students who come from neighborhoods like the one where I grew up, with parents who worked hard like mine did for me. My life's work has been to serve others. It will remain the same -- I will just pursue that work from a different position.

"Today, I resign from the L.A. Unified Board to resume my role as a private citizen and community advocate. Thank you to the parents, students, community members, my staff and everyone who has given me their unwavering support. I am sorry for the mistakes I have made. I wish all of my colleagues the best as they continue this critical work."

The city Ethics Commission held a special meeting late Monday morning to approve the settlement of campaign violation allegations against Rodriguez. According to commission documents, he admitted that he carried out a money laundering scheme during his 2015 campaign and agreed to pay a $100,000 fine.

The fine was levied against both Rodriguez and Melendrez, but Rodriguez has agreed to pay the entire fine in installments himself over one year, according to Ethics Commission staff. The stipulation was approved by the commission on a 4-0 vote. According to the stipulation, Rodriguez and Melendrez admit they reimbursed 25 political contributions to Rodriguez's campaign committee, violating the City Charter's "prohibition against political money laundering."

Rodriguez had originally been charged with three felonies and 25 misdemeanors in the criminal case. The additional charges against him were dismissed as part of the plea deal. Rodriguez was elected in 2015 to the District 5 seat on the LAUSD board, representing areas including Atwater Village, Eagle Rock, Highland Park, Los Feliz, Mount Washington and Silver Lake.

He is a co-founder of Partnerships to Uplift Communities, a series of charter schools in northeast Los Angeles and the northeastern San Fernando Valley. Rodriguez stepped down from his position as school board president in September 2017 after the allegations came to light, but he remained on the board. LAUSD board President Monica Garcia and Vice President Nick Melvoin issued a joint statement saying the panel will meet "in the coming weeks" to determine the process of replacing Rodriguez on the board.

"While we would like to ensure no break in representation for District 5 by appointing a temporary voting representative as soon as possible, we would also like to call a special election to fill the vacancy as soon as we can," they said. "A board majority will have to agree to a plan."

Replacing Rodriguez could become a major political fight. Rodriguez was part of a four-vote majority on the board considered favorable toward expansion of charter schools -- which has been vehemently opposed by the teachers' union and backers of traditional public schools.

"Every chance he got, Rodriguez sided with the agenda of billionaire privatizers such as Eli Broad, the Walmart family, Reed Hastings and Betsy Devos and that of the California Charter School Association," former LAUSD board member Bennett Kayser -- who preceded Rodriguez in representing District 5 -- said. "For shame."

The teachers' union, United Teachers Los Angeles, called on the school board to schedule a special election to fill Rodriguez's seat. But it also called on the board to revisit all of the 4-3 votes in which Rodriguez was a swing vote -- "including the 4-3 vote to being the process of hiring investment banker Austin Beutner as superintendent."

"Every vote he made on the school board was not in the interests of students or parents of LAUSD," UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl said. "He carried out the wishes of the wealthy elite, including the CEO of Netflix and the billionaire-backed California Charter Schools Association."

LAUSD board member Kelly Gonez, who is among the board members seen as favorable to charters, said she agreed with Rodriguez's decision to resign, and said she was thankful for the work he did "to uplift and empower his constituents, the kids and families of board District 5."

"There will of course be questions about what happens next, and those will be answered in due time," Gonez said. "In the meantime, I hope that we can work to restore the public's trust in the process, and each rededicate ourselves to strengthening public education for all kids in Los Angeles."

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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