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Ref Rodriguez pleads not guilty but refuses to leave the LAUSD board

Los Angeles Unified School Board member Ref Rodriguez attends a meeting on Aug. 22, 2017.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC
Los Angeles Unified School Board member Ref Rodriguez attends a meeting on Aug. 22, 2017.

Los Angeles Unified school board member Ref Rodriguez pleaded not guilty Tuesday to felony charges stemming from an alleged political money-laundering scheme during his 2015 election campaign and refused calls from his fellow board members to take a leave of absence during the duration of the case. 

Shortly after Rodriguez entered his plea, L.A. Unified board president Mónica García, along with vice president Nick Melvoin and member Kelly Gonez, called on Rodriguez to temporarily step down from the board, saying that the controversy around Rodriguez is creating a distraction from the school district's educational mission.

"Nobody should be tried in the press or the court of public opinion without having a fair hearing," García, Melvoin and Gonez said in the statement. "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."

Tuesday afternoon, Rodriguez said in a statement he would not take a leave. 

"I am a dedicated public servant, and I have faith in the truth," Rodriguez said. "I believe in the integrity of our justice system where I will respond to the allegations. In the interim, I wish to thank those who continue to believe that together, we can transform schools and communities."

The call for Rodriguez to take a leave is notable because García, Melvoin and Gonez are all members of a school board majority backed by charter school supporters who also supported Rodriguez.

Prosecutors allege Rodriguez and his cousin, Elizabeth Tinajero Melendrez, worked together to reimburse 25 campaign donors for more than $24,000-worth of contributions, then filed campaign finance documents obscuring that Rodriguez was the true source of the money.

Rodriguez's attorney, Daniel V. Nixon, said Tuesday he could not comment on the specific allegations against his client as he was still reviewing evidence, but that Rodriguez's not-guilty plea "speaks for itself."

The court appearance comes amid swirling questions about a separate matter: the charter school network Rodriguez co-founded, Partnerships to Uplift Communities, is conducting an internal investigation into more than $285,000 in payments Rodriguez authorized in 2014 to two outside companies to which he had personal ties.

Leaders of the charter school network filed a formal "conflict-of-interest" complaint against Rodriguez with California's Fair Political Practices Commission, "FPPC," a state ethics agency.

FPPC officials recently dismissed the complaint, citing the criminal prosecution against Rodriguez in the campaign finance case. It's not clear whether that dismissal speaks to the merits of a conflict-of-interest case against Rodriguez.

Nixon said Tuesday it was too early to comment on the evidence in the conflict-of-interest complaint.

Rodriguez "denies any wrongdoing," Nixon said. "We’ll speak about it in more detail at the appropriate time and in the appropriate forum, but it’s not today."

In the campaign finance case, Rodriguez and Melendrez, who was a top campaign aide in 2015, each face one felony count of conspiracy and 25 misdemeanor counts. Rodriguez faces an additional count of perjury and procuring or offering a false or forged instrument. Melendrez also pleaded not guilty Tuesday.

If convicted, the charges carry possible jail time for both Rodriguez and Melendrez. If Rodriguez is convicted of a felony charge, he would also have to give up his seat on the L.A. Unified board.

This post will be updated.