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Complaints piling up against LAUSD board member Ref Rodriguez

LAUSD School Board Member Dr. Ref Rodriguez visits an eighth grade history class at Luther Burbank Middle School on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016 during the first day of instruction. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

One month after his indictment on campaign finance charges, a new complaint was filed this week against Los Angeles School Board member Refugio "Ref" Rodriguez for allegedly transferring more than $285,000 in public funds from the charter school network he co-founded to two businesses with which he had personal ties.

Leaders of the charter network — Partnerships to Uplift Communities — documented these payments, all made between March and Oct. 2014, in a conflict-of-interest complaint against Rodriguez filed Monday with California’s Fair Political Practices Commission.

A call to Rodriguez's attorney requesting comment was not immediately returned.

KPCC obtained a copy through a public records request. You can read it here.

The two-year-old documents and the new complaint have thickened the cloud of legal and political questions surrounding the board member’s future. The L.A. County District Attorney charged Rodriguez with felony perjury and conspiracy for allegedly reimbursing almost $25,000 in campaign donations back to donors.

According to the FPPC complaint, the biggest recipient of public money was Partners for Developing Futures, a separate nonprofit which employed Rodriguez as president and CEO. As KPCC has previously reported, the corporation was a self-described "social venture investment fund" that helped direct seed money from several major education philanthropic groups — including the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — to educators of color trying to start charter schools.

Rodriguez signed 14 checks totaling more than $265,000 from the accounts of several schools in the Partnerships to Uplift Communities network. The money was supposed to reimburse Partners for Developing Futures for training the firm had provided to employees of Partnerships to Uplift Communities, according to contracts and documents attached to the complaint against Rodriguez.

But it's unclear whether Partners for Developing Futures actually provided the training, according to Naush Boghossian, a spokeswoman for Partnerships to Uplift Communities. She said her organization has launched an internal investigation to determine whether the service was provided.

The complaint also referred to two checks totaling $20,400 Rodriguez wrote in March and May 2014 to Better 4 You Fundraising, a merchandise sales and fundraising consulting company.

Rodriguez had a stake in Better 4 You Fundraising during 2013, according to a financial disclosure report he filed when he launching his bid for school board in Nov. 2014.

Whether Rodriguez still had a stake in the company at the time of the payments remains unclear. As KPCC has reported, Rodriguez did not list Better 4 You Fundraising on financial disclosure forms he filed when he took office in 2015.

Partnerships to Uplift Communities included scanned copies of all 16 checks in the FPPC complaint. One of the checks to Better 4 You Fundraising — the March 11, 2014 payment for $13,200 — was co-signed by Rodriguez and Nancy Villagomez, Rodriguez's cousin, who was a principal of a Partnerships to Uplift Communities school at the time. The check's memo line noted it was for a "chocolate fundraiser."

Boghossian, the charter network spokeswoman, said Partnerships to Uplift Communities policy would have allowed a school principal to sign that check on her own if it were for $5,000 or less. Since it was more it would have needed the signature of a second Partnerships to Uplift Communities official, which Rodriguez provided in this case.

The charter is also exploring whether Rodriguez had a stake in Better 4 You Fundraising at the time of the payments, and, if so, whether Villagomez knew he had a stake, Boghossian said.

Villagomez was named by the L.A. City Ethics Commission as one of the straw donors Rodriguez and his cousin Elizabeth Tinajero Melendrez allegedly used to illegally funnel money into his campaign. The Ethics Commission's complaint led to the D.A.'s filing criminal charges against Rodriguez and Melendrez.

In his only public comment to date on the charges, Rodriguez said in a statement last month that he and his legal team had been working to resolve questions over the donations for over two years.

"I have cooperated with authorities and hope these issues will be resolved expeditiously and fairly," he said.