Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) officials offered measured reaction to the arrest Wednesday, Sept. 13, of Board of Education president Refugio “Ref” Rodriguez and a cousin, who face more than two dozen criminal counts for allegedly reimbursing nearly $25,000 to donors he listed on a campaign finance form.
“L.A. Unified has been made aware of the charges against Dr. Ref Rodriguez,” LAUSD officials said in a statement. “These allegations are not connected to any district business. However, we will cooperate, as needed, with the District Attorney’s Office.”
Rodriguez, 46 — who became president of the school board this summer — was charged by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office with one felony count each of conspiracy to commit assumed name contribution, perjury and procuring and offering a false or forged instrument. He is also charged with 25 misdemeanor counts of assumed name contribution.
His cousin, Elizabeth Tinajero Melendrez, 45, is charged with one felony count of conspiracy to commit assumed name contribution and 25 misdemeanor counts of assumed name contribution.
Rodriguez and Melendez were scheduled to be arraigned on Wednesday in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom. But the arraignment was postponed until Oct. 24.
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 fund-raising 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.
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.
City News Service contributed to this report.