LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) – Los Angeles Unified School District board member Ref Rodriguez pleaded not guilty Tuesday to criminal charges for allegedly reimbursing nearly $25,000 to donors he listed on a campaign finance form.
Refugio “Ref” Rodriguez, 46, was president of the Board of Education, but gave up that post after being charged in September with one felony count each of conspiracy to commit assumed name contribution, perjury and procuring and offering a false or forged instrument, along with 25 misdemeanor counts of assumed name contribution.
His cousin, Elizabeth Tinajero Melendrez, 45, was charged with one felony count of conspiracy to commit assumed name contribution and 25 misdemeanor counts of assumed name contribution. She also pleaded not guilty.
While Rodriguez stepped aside as president, he remains on the board. Three of his colleagues called on him to take a leave of absence while the legal process plays out. Board president Monica Garcia, vice president Nick Melvoin and board member Kelly Gonez issued a joint statement urging Rodriguez to temporarily step aside.
“Nobody should be tried in the press or the court of public opinion without having a fair hearing,” the statement read, in part. “But in order to keep making progress towards our goal of 100 percent graduation, we have asked Dr. Rodriguez to take a leave of absence from the board. As with any employee of the district who is accused of misconduct, this allows for a quicker resolution while enabling the district to continue its work.”
The two are due back in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom Dec. 13, when a date is scheduled to be set for a hearing to determine if there is sufficient evidence to require them to stand trial.
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.
Melendrez was a volunteer with his campaign.
Rodriguez said last month that he and his attorneys have been trying to “resolve the issues with the Los Angeles Ethics Commission 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,” Rodriguez said then. “I have cooperated with authorities and hope these issues will be resolved expeditiously and fairly.”
After a court appearance Sept. 13, Melendrez’s attorney called the charges “much ado about nothing.”
“We are surprised this has risen to the level of a criminal prosecution,” attorney Mark Werksman said.
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, 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 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,” according to the Ethics Commission.
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.
(©2017 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Wire services contributed to this report.)