The president of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education and his cousin were charged Wednesday with more than two dozen criminal counts for allegedly reimbursing nearly $25,000 to donors he listed on a campaign finance form.
Refugio "Ref" Rodriguez — who became president of the school board this summer — was charged with one felony count each of conspiracy to commit assumed name contribution, perjury and procuring and offering a false or forged instrument, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office. Rodriguez, 46, is also charged with 25 misdemeanor counts of assumed name contribution.
His cousin, Elizabeth Tinajero Melendrez, 45, was charged with one felony count of conspiracy to commit assumed name contribution and 25 misdemeanor counts of assumed name contribution. Both defendants appeared in court in downtown Los Angeles, but their arraignment was postponed until Oct. 24.
Deputy District Attorney Susan Ser told the court that Rodriguez "breached the public trust."
he said the alleged violations were brought to the attention of prosecutors by a "whistleblower" whom she did not name. Rodriguez and Melendrez stood with their attorneys as Superior Court Judge Deborah Brazil rejected a prosecution request for bail and allowed the defendants to remain free on their own recognizance. Brazil did order that their passports be surrendered at their next court appearance in October.
"We're going to come back to court in a couple of weeks and see where things stand," Rodriguez's attorney, Daniel Nixon, said outside court. "My client intends to go back to work for the LAUSD tomorrow and continue to do the job he was elected to do."
In a statement released Wednesday evening, Rodriguez said the decision by the District Attorney comes after attempts by him and his legal team to "resolve these issues with the Los Angeles Ethics Commission for over two years.
"As the product of an immigrant family, nobody has more respect for the integrity of the American justice system than I do," he said. "I have cooperated with authorities and hope these issues will be resolved expeditiously and fairly.
"Above all, my commitment to the students, teachers, parents and families of Los Angeles remains unwavering. I have always been determined to put students first and to bring a 'Kids First' agenda to L.A. Unified. I was just a kid from the community and developed a passion for education – and ran as a first-time candidate – in order to help build a better future for other kids like me. That passion has always fueled me, and it always will."
"This is much ado about nothing," Melendrez's attorney, Mark Werksman, said outside court. "We are surprised this has risen to the level of a criminal prosecution."
Werksman said it was "mystifying" that county prosecutors would bring a case "over such a small amount of money so long ago." Prosecutors allege Rodriguez raised more than $50,000 during the first campaign reporting period that ended in December 2014 and that 25 donors — most of whom were family members and friends — were allegedly paid back $24,250 by Rodriguez and Melendrez.
The donors' names had been listed on a campaign finance report that was allegedly signed by Rodriguez under the penalty of perjury and submitted to the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, which received a whistleblower complaint in March 2015 about Rodriguez's fundraising activities, according to the District Attorney's Office.
According to Ethics Commission documents, shortly after Rodriguez began his campaign for the school board seat in November 2014, Rodriguez "provided $26,000 of his own money to Melendrez, his cousin and a key campaign volunteer, with instructions to funnel that money into his campaign account by asking family members to make contributions."
"Melendrez enticed 25 family members and friends to make campaign contributions by telling them that their contributions would be reimbursed," according to the Ethics Commission accusation.
"The 25 contributions were made from Dec. 23 through Dec. 31, 2014, ranged from $775 to $1,100 each, and totaled $24,250. Melendrez fully reimbursed all 25 contributions using Rodriguez's funds."
According to the Ethics Commission, Rodriguez filed a campaign disclosure statement on Jan. 12, 2015, and that statement included the 25 donations that had been reimbursed. "In that statement, Rodriguez certified under penalty of perjury that he had raised a total of $51,001 in contributions from other people. However, nearly half of the reported funds were actually Rodriguez's own money."
The Ethics Commission staff accused both Rodriguez and Melendrez of 25 acts of laundering funds into Rodriguez's campaign. The commission will review the accusations and make a final determination on the allegations and a decision on penalties.
The commission can levy a maximum penalty of $5,000 per violation. Rodriguez and Melendrez were charged criminally following an additional investigation by the District Attorney's Office. David Holmquist, attorney for the LAUSD, said the district is aware of the criminal charges. "These allegations are not connected to any district business," Holmquist said. "However, we will cooperate, as needed, with the District Attorney's Office. L.A. Unified remains committed to its mission of providing all students with access to high-quality schools so that our graduates are prepared for college and careers."
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. Melendrez was a volunteer with his campaign. "Eventually, we will resolve this matter," her attorney said.