Los Angeles Unified School Board President Ref Rodriguez and his cousin were charged with felony conspiracy Wednesday by the L.A. District Attorney's office for allegedly reimbursing almost $25,000 in campaign donations back to donors.
Rodriguez and his cousin, Elizabeth Tinajero Melendrez, each face one felony count of conspiracy to commit assumed name contribution and 25 misdemeanor counts of assumed name contribution. Rodriguez additionally faces a count of perjury and procuring or offering a false or forged instrument.
The charges stem from a months-long investigation by the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, which received a whistle-blower complaint in March 2015, officials said. Commission staff concluded that Rodriguez and Melendrez illegally reimbursed 25 people – mostly family and friends – a total of $24,250 for their contributions to Rodriguez's campaign.
Rodriguez also submitted a campaign finance report under penalty of perjury verifying the donors, the charges claim.
Rodriguez was first elected to represent much of Los Angeles' east side, as well as cities including Huntington Park and South Gate, in 2015. He was elected president of the board in July of this year.
Lawyer Daniel Nixon, who is representing Rodriguez, said that they were still looking over the facts of the allegations.
"My client intends to go back to work on behalf of the L.A. Unified School District and continue to do the work that he was elected to do," Nixon said.
In a statement, Rodriguez said that he and his legal team had been working to resolve questions over the donations 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," Rodriguez continued. "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."
In a statement, L.A. Unified general counsel David Holmquist said that the charges are "not connected" to any operations of the school district. "However, we will cooperate, as needed, with the District Attorney’s Office," Holmquist said.
L.A. Unified board member Nick Melvoin said in a statement that board members were notified of the charges against Rodriguez in the 24 hours before the charges were made public.
"Today’s news about our Board President, a longtime educator and advocate for kids, is unsettling," Melvoin said. "The serious allegations are not connected to the work of the Board or LAUSD; our focus today, as it is every day, has been on our students and school communities. We will continue our march towards 100% graduation, and the Board will reconvene at the Committee of the Whole on Tuesday.”
Rodriguez and Melendrez made their first court appearance Wednesday afternoon; an arraignment was scheduled for October 24. If convicted, Rodriguez faces up to four years and four months in jail. Melendrez faces up to three years. Rodriguez would also lose his seat on the board if convicted.
During a press conference Wednesday, Rodriguez's lawyer Nixon said that the board president had been cooperative throughout the investigation.
"As I understand it, candidates fund their own campaigns often," he said. "I think it's a question of simply the details and nuances of how that takes place, and I'm not at liberty to discuss what specifically occurred here because I don't know all of the facts."
Melendrez's lawyer, Mark Werksman, also said on Wednesday afternoon that she acted innocently as a campaign volunteer and that, given the small financial sums involved, the charges are a "harsh and draconian response to a fairly minor alleged transgression."
"She had no idea that there was anything illegal in the method in which they solicited and reported contributions," he said. "Frankly we're surprised that this case has come to this point of criminal prosecution."
Questions about Rodriguez's campaign finance practices have been raised since 2015, when several employees of the charter school network Rodriguez founded, the Partnership to Uplift Communities, contributed at or near the maximum donation amount of $1,100.
At the time, Rodriguez told KPCC that the contributions weren't coerced and that they would not be reimbursed.
According to the Ethics Commission report, Rodrigez gave Melendrez, who was volunteering for his campaign, $26,o00 of his own money with instructions to direct the funds into his own campaign account through donations from family members. Melendrez then asked 25 family members and friends to donate sums ranging from $775 to $1,100 and reimbursed them using Rodriguez's funds.
One of the donors named by the Ethics Commission, Luz Maria Lopez, an office worker for PUC, told KPCC in 2015 that she donated at the maximum level because of her support for her employer.
"I really believe in Ref," she said. "My kids go to PUC schools."
When asked if she had been reimbursed for the funds, she said no. "It's a donation," she said. "How are you going to get reimbursed?"
In a 2015 interview with KPCC, Rodriguez said the early donations from members of the staff of the charter school he founded spoke to the integrity of his campaign.
"These are folks that know me and have been part of our organization for some time now. "I see it as a kind of investment, as an investment, as a source of pride as well," he said. "It's been sort of an outpouring of folks' belief in me and what we're trying to do for the greater good of this city and for the children in the district."
Rodriguez eventually beat his opponent in the campaign, incumbent Bennett Kayser, by about 2,000 votes.
The felony charges against Rodriguez rippled through L.A.'s school community.
"It doesn’t totally surprise me. We had brought that up during the campaign," said Bennet Kayser when informed of the charges "it’s good to see that justice is moving in the right direction."
Kayser said he told L.A. City Ethics Commission staff that he suspected some of the Rodriguez donations were reimbursed.
Direct contributions from individual donors, like the ones Rodriguez is charged with reimbursing, made up just about 18 percent of the money spent in that race. Most of the other funding in the race came through independent expenditures – including $1.8 million from the California Charter Schools Association dedicated to supporting Rodriguez.