Ref Rodriguez Pleads Guilty To Felony And Misdemeanor Charges, Resigns From LAUSD Board

Ref Rodriguez, a member of the Los Angeles Unified School Board, listens during a board meeting on June 5, 2018. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

Facing criminal charges and dogged by a separate financial scandal, Refugio "Ref" Rodriguez has resigned from his seat on the Los Angeles Unified School Board.

Rodriguez gave up his seat the same morning he appeared in court to announce a plea deal with prosecutors, who had brought three felony counts against him for political money laundering during his 2015 election campaign. Under the deal, announced Monday, Rodriguez will plead guilty to one felony count of conspiracy and four misdemeanor charges. He will also complete 60 days of community service and serve three years of probation.

District attorney spokesman Ricardo Santiago confirmed that Rodriguez resigned this morning, separately from the plea deal.

Rodriguez also struck a parallel agreement with L.A. City Ethics Commission in which he and his co-defendant — cousin Elizabeth Melendrez — would admit to the political money laundering scheme in exchange for paying a reduced fine of $100,000. The commission voted Monday morning to accept the deal.

The decision to quit caps a stunning fall from grace for Rodriguez, once a well-liked and well-connected co-founder of a charter school network, who only one year ago seemed perfectly-positioned to become the face of education reform in L.A.

Politically, Rodriguez's resignation deals a significant setback to the pro-charter school groups who had backed his 2015 campaign. Those groups also spent unprecedented amounts of money on L.A. Unified School Board elections last year, helping to seat a new-look board in 2017 that selected Rodriguez to serve as its president.

Rodriguez was one of four board members endorsed by the California Charter Schools Association. That bloc's lock on a majority on the seven-member board is now gone.

"I am sorry for the mistakes I have made," Rodriguez said in a statement posted to social media.

REMIND ME: HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?

Rodriguez ascended to the presidency of the L.A. Unified School Board in July 2017. He had only begun to chart a new course for the board when, on Sept. 13, the L.A. County District Attorney dropped a bombshell that few saw coming.

Prosecutors charged Rodriguez with three felonies. They alleged Rodriguez funneled more than $24,000 through straw donors into his 2015 school board campaign, then filed false campaign disclosures obscuring the true source of the money. Rodriguez has pleaded not guilty to those charges.

Candidates are not barred from self-financing their own election campaigns. If Rodriguez had simply deposited that $24,250 into his campaign himself, it's possible no charges may ever have been filed. But L.A. election laws clearly prohibit making campaign donations in someone else's name or with someone else's money.

Rocio Rivas, parent of a student at Rockdale Elementary School, disputed the assertion that Rodriguez's actions amounted to a simple mistake by a first-time candidate.

"Why did he have to lie?" asked Rivas, who attended Rodriguez's sentencing hearing. "He can go ahead and give as much contribution [to his own campaign] ... but he did it under false pretenses. He wanted to show that he had support, that he had all these contributions coming in, which wasn't true."

A week after the charges were announced, Rodriguez gave up the presidency of the school board, but did not resign from the board altogether.

Then, in October, the charter network Rodriguez co-founded, Partnerships to Uplift Communities, or "PUC Schools," disclosed files that raised even more questions.

They showed Rodriguez had signed $285,000-worth of checks sending public funds to two outside corporations to which he also had personal ties. Through his attorney, Rodriguez has denied any wrongdoing.

FILE - 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. (Photo by Maya Sugarman/KPCC)

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

The six remaining L.A Unified board members would have to decide how to proceed to fill Rodriguez's seat. The L.A. City Charter — amended just three years ago following a similar school board succession crisis — gives them several options.

Board members could ask the city to call a special election to fill the remaining two-and-a-half years on Rodriguez's term. As this special election plays out, the board could simply leave the seat vacant or appoint a temporary representative.

L.A. Unified's top attorney, David Holmquist, said the board could even decide to grant this temporary appointtee full voting powers.

In a statement, Board President Mónica García and Vice President Nick Melvoin said they favored appointing a temporary voting representative for District 5, which covers much of northeast and southeast Los Angeles, and that they would call a special election to replace Rodriguez "as soon as we can."

García and Melvoin's statement noted whatever steps the board decides to take will require a majority vote: "We hope to convene the Board in the coming weeks to collaboratively decide the path forward."

Board members may also have another option: Holmquist said board members could simply appoint a full voting representative to serve until Rodriguez's original term expires in December 2020.

A spokesman for the L.A. City Attorney's Office disagrees with that interpretation, saying the city charter only allows an appointed successor to serve until June 30, 2019 — meaning the school district would have to call a special election sometime before then, most likely in March 2019.

But Holmquist said L.A. Unified attorneys point out the charter also says the city should "consolidate" a special school board election with the municipal primary and general elections "next following the appointment;" it's too late to put a special election on the November 2018 ballot, and L.A. isn't having municipal elections again until 2020.

In a statement of her own, board member Kelly Gonez did not comment on how she hoped to fill Rodriguez's seat.

"There will of course be questions about what happens next," Gonez said in a separate statement, "and those will be answered in due time. In the meantime, I hope that we can work to restore the public's trust in the process."

Depending on who replaces Rodriguez, his departure could leave L.A. Unified's new superintendent in a more precarious position.

Some would not accept a district superintendent's job without a unanimous or near-unanimous vote of the school board. But with Rodriguez gone, Beutner is left with a mere majority of board members who voted to hire him. Even Gonez, who ultimately voted for Beutner, expressed some reservations about giving him the job. The two remaining board members were vocal in their criticism of Beutner's selection.

However board members move to fill Rodriguez's seat, the process is likely to be hotly-contested. A special election would be divisive — and perhaps just as expensive as the 2017 board elections, which set records for independent campaign spending.

Similarly, appointing a replacement for Rodriguez would require the board to reach a consensus, and with Rodriguez gone, the board is politically divided: three board members have the charter association's backing and the other three were endorsed by L.A.'s main teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles.

HOW WILL THIS CHANGE THE LAUSD BOARD?

This loose "pro-charter majority" coalition of charter-backed members has not always voted in lockstep. But the coalition was at its most cohesive when board members had to vote on nominations. In July 2017, the four charter-backed members overruled the three UTLA-endorsed board members in naming Rodriguez to be the board's president.

After Rodriguez relinquished the board presidency in September, the three union-endorsed board members voted against the nomination of the current president, Mónica García. Other nomination fights have broken along these factional lines.

On other matters of policy, it's not clear how Rodriguez's departure will impact the L.A. Unified board's decision-making.

The "pro-charter majority" had shown it would not be inclined to grant every request charter schools made. For instance, in October, the board unanimously rejected a renewal for a charter school that had attempted to push back on some of the district regulations many more charters found to be overly burdensome.

In November, though, the board's pressure was key in striking a compromise on those charter regulations — a compromise that critics have painted as a cave-in to charter school interests.

The L.A. Unified board has cast consequential votes that cross these factional lines as well. In April, the board voted unanimously to re-write the district's rules for determining which schools should get extra money in their budgets to help ensure some of the most vulnerable students are educated.

Teachers union leaders said many of those votes are now tainted. On Monday, UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl called on the board to revisit — or perhaps even throw out completely — "all 4-3 votes where Rodriguez cast the deciding vote."

Caputo-Pearl said his statement would include a controversial 4-3 decision made in closed session — he would call it a "vote," others might disagree — to open contract talks that lead to Beutner's hiring.

"Every vote [Rodriguez] made on the school board," Caputo-Pearl's statement read, "was not in the interest of students or parents of LAUSD. He carried out the wishes of the wealthy elite, including the CEO of Netflix" — Reed Hastings, who donated $75,000 to Rodriguez's legal defense — "and the billionaire-backed California Charter Schools Association."

From Bennett Kayser's perspective, the damage has already been done. Kayser, a noted opponent of charter schools, was the school board incumbent Rodriguez ousted in 2015 after a bitterly-fought campaign.

"Ref Rodriguez cheated the voters and hid the facts behind his illegitimate campaign win," Kayser said in a written statement Friday, after word of a possible deal first trickled out.

"In the meantime," Kayser added, "Ref Rodriguez represented a compromised vote on multiple critical decisions ... Justice delayed has hurt the voters, our school district, and most importantly, our children."

This post was updated at 4:30 p.m. on Tues., July 24, with more specific information on the process of filling a school board vacancy.


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