Los Angeles Unified School District board member Ref Rodriguez  

LOS ANGELES (CNS) — Los Angeles Unified School District board member Ref Rodriguez  has pleaded guilty to a felony conspiracy charge and four misdemeanors for reimbursing donors to his 20-15 election campaign, and he resigned from the school board. He apologized for his mistakes. 

His departure from the LAUSD board sets the stage for a politically charged battle to find a replacement on a board now split over charter-school expansion.

Prior to his election for the school board, Rodriguez was a co-founder of Partnerships to Uplift Communities, (PUC), a series of charter schools in the northeast San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles. His election to the school board was praised for giving representation to charter schools.  

“I am sorry for the mistakes I have made,” Rodriguez said in a statement.

Under a plea agreement with prosecutors, Rodriguez was placed on three years probation and ordered to serve 60 days community service. Rodriguez, 47, also reached a settlement 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, 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’ attorney, Mark Werksman, speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, called the matter “much ado about nothing” and “overreach on the part of the District Attorney’s Office and other political forces” that “should have been resolved with a fine.”

Melendrez pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor counts of assumed-name contributions and was sentenced to three years summary probation — which is less strict and does not require regular visits to a probation officer — and 60 days community service.

Parents who had been advocating for Rodriguez’ resignation said the case was more than a matter of technicalities.

“(Rodriguez) wanted to show that he had support. … He lied to get himself elected,” parent Rocio Rivas said.

Josh Rutkoff, who has two boys in school at Aldama Elementary School in Mount Washington and has been a vocal critic of Rodriguez, told reporters outside the downtown courthouse he wasn’t concerned with the particulars of Rodriguez’ sentence. Rutkoff and other parents and advocates called for a special election to replace Rodriguez, with Rivas asking for the chance to elect “someone who does not have any ties to charter schools” and what she called “a hidden agenda.”

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.”