Dr. Ref Rodriguez submitted his immediate resignation to the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education after pleading guilty to conspiracy charges.
In a statement on Twitter, Rodriguez said, “It has been the honor of my life to serve the communities of Board District 5 as their LA Unified board member. I have spent my adult life working to improve educational conditions for students who come from neighborhoods like the one where I grew up, with parents who worked hard like mine did for me. This work will continue, I will just pursue that work from a different position.”
Rodriguez had been under investigation since 2015 when a complaint was filed alleging he had laundered money in order to boost campaign funds. The subsequent investigation led to multiple felony charges, to which Rodriguez contested.
Rodriguez admitted to taking part in a ploy to conceal the source of his early campaign donations in a school board race that was called the most expensive in history with the aid of his cousin Elizabeth Melendrez. Both agreed to pay a joint fine of $100,000 as a part of their plea deals.
Along with his cousin, Rodriguez devised a plan to fund his campaign with his own money from being the head of a charter and later reimburse them with Rodriguez’s money. In late December 2014, family, friends, and low-wage charter school employees made donations to his campaign. The contributions ranged from $775 to $1,100. In total, half of his reported $51,001 on his first campaign filing was laundered money.
As he learned in an ethics training, Rodriguez could have contributed to his campaign openly. Contributing to his own campaign was legal, but disguising the source of funds is not. The Ethics Commission said Rodriguez’s actions “were deliberate, and Rodriguez knowingly received and made use of laundered funds during the election and his actions reflected an intent to conceal, deceive and mislead.”
The intent behind the money laundering efforts was to give the impression of community support to attract wealthy charter school donors, who raised millions on behalf of his campaign. Though the issue did not become public until two years later, a whistleblower complaint was filed in March 2015. Rodriguez was ultimately elected to the LAUSD Board of Education in June of 2015 and elected President by a slim majority a couple years later.
When charges were announced, Rodriguez stepped down from his presidency after which current Board President, Monica Garcia took over. Although Rodriguez’s plea deal was not contingent upon his resignation, it was welcomed by his former colleagues on the school board.
With the plea deal, Rodriguez and his cousin both avoid jail time and receive 60 days community service and 3 years probation. However, Rodriguez still faces an investigation by the US Attorney’s office into conflict of interest allegations related to $285,000 in payments authorized from Partnerships to Uplift Communities, or PUC Schools. Although the payments were made to a non-profit under Rodriguez’s control, his attorney denies any wrongdoing.
In a statement, Board President Monica Garcia said, “While we would like to ensure no break in representation for District 5 by appointing a temporary voting representative as soon as possible, we would like to call a special election to fill the vacancy as soon as we can. A board majority will have to agree to a plan.”
Since Rodriguez was the swing vote in a slim majority, replacing him by appointee could be nearly impossible and could decide the fate of LAUSD charter school expansion, which is ardently opposed by LAUSD’s teachers’ union, United Teachers Los Angeles, and traditional public school supporters.
UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl was not sad to see Rodriguez go, saying “Every vote he made on the school board was not in the interests of students or parents of LAUSD. He carried out the wishes of the wealthy elite, including the CEO of Netflix and the billionaire-backed California Charter Schools Association.” UTLA is urging the LAUSD board to call a special election to fill the vacant seat.
Kelly Gonez, LAUSD board member praised Rodriguez’s decision to resign while praising the work he did to “uplift and empower his constituents, the kids, and families of board district 5.” On what happens next, Gonez would go on to say, “There will be of course question about what happens next, and those questions will be answered in due time. In the meantime, I hope we can work to restore the public’s trust in the process, and each rededicate ourselves to strengthening public education for all kids in Los Angeles.”