Embattled former Los Angeles school board president Refugio “Ref” Rodriguez is facing three felony charges and 25 misdemeanor counts for an alleged scheme to launder money into his campaign. Rodriguez stepped down this week as president but has retained his seat on the school board for now.

The criminal complaint brought by the L.A. County District Attorney's Office on Sept. 13 alleges that Rodriguez cashed out a $26,000 business investment and funneled the money into his campaign through straw donors who were family members, friends and former employees of his. Rodriguez's cousin Elizabeth Melendez is charged with helping facilitate the scheme and delivering cash reimbursements to the “donors.” 

The timing of the indictment is deflating for the pro–charter school movement within the Los Angeles Unified School District. Rodriguez was elected board president in July after charter-backed candidates swept the spring elections, establishing a slim pro-charter majority on the board for the first time.

Pro-charter groups and wealthy donors had poured $9.7 million into support for their candidates, while the union-led opposition spent $5.2 million — making it the most expensive school-board race in U.S. history. The pro-charter forces had spent more than $2 million to help elect Rodriguez in 2015.

The stakes are high: If Rodriguez is forced to vacate his seat, it could undermine his camp's reform agenda. His backers have defended his actions as those of a political novice who made “a rookie mistake.”

Had Rodriguez donated the $26,000 to his campaign under his own name, campaign finance law would have permitted it. 

Political consultants and campaign finance experts have speculated that Rodriguez may have funneled his campaign through straw donors to create the impression he had a broader base of support and therefore was a more viable candidate. As the headline of a recent Los Angeles Times story put it, “Why didn't school board president Ref Rodriguez just write himself a big check?”

But as reporters continue to pore over the campaign finance records at issue in the Rodriguez investigation, a third possibility has arisen: Maybe the money wasn’t his. That's what KPCC’s Adolfo Guzman-Lopez and Kyle Stokes explored in an investigative report published on Sept. 28.

Rodriguez has not commented on the charges against him. His lawyer Daniel Nixon did not respond to a request for an interview for this story. Greg Risling, a spokesman for the District Attorney's Office, declined to comment on the nature of the business interest mentioned in the complaint.

The KPCC reporters looked at gaps in Rodriguez’s campaign finance disclosures from the web of companies and organizations to which he was linked at the time of the alleged crimes. Rodriguez has had stakes in an investment fund for new charter schools, a merchandise and fundraising company, and a successful charter-school network.

Credit: Jason McGahan

Credit: Jason McGahan

Rodriguez is best known as the founder of Partnership to Uplift Communities, a network of 17 charter schools in L.A. But he omitted the $172,000 income from his duties as treasurer of the network when he filed a financial disclosure form in December 2014 as a candidate for school board. 

In a subsequent financial disclosure for the campaign, filed in 2015, Rodriguez omitted his role as president of Partners for Developing Futures, a “social venture investment fund” that gave educators of color the money to open charter schools. Partners for Developing Futures had been awarded a $30,000 consulting contract by LAUSD in December 2014, but it is unclear whether or what Rodriguez was paid as president during the span of that contract because the organization failed to file required IRS tax returns starting in 2013 — a failure that eventually cost the organization its tax-exempt status.

Back in 2012, Partners for Developing Futures reported $2.17 million in total assets, and $1.5 million in total revenue. From 2010 to 2012 the Walton Family Foundation donated more than $3.6 million in grants, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation added another $1.9 million during the same period. Rodriguez was paid $140,000 in 2012 and $180,000 in 2011.

Robert D. Skeels, a community activist and law student who publishes a blog critical of the influence of charters on LAUSD, filed a complaint with the IRS against Partners for Developing Futures after Rodriguez's assistant refused to provide copies of the nonprofit's tax filings, as required by the law. The assistant named in Skeels' complaint to the IRS is Melendez, Rodriguez's cousin and co-defendant in the Sept. 13 criminal complaint.

Skeels says that six months before Rodriguez, through Partners for Developing Futures, “inked that $30,000 contract with the school district,” Melendez told him that the organization “had closed down a long time ago, that they weren't in business anymore.”

“Honestly,” Skeels says, “there are a lot more questions than answers at this point.”

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