- LA Times Editorial Board
By the time the last vote was counted in the 2015 LAUSD School Board election, it was the most expensive school board race in the history of the country. The impending cost to run for the Board District 5 seat was clear from the beginning when challenger Andrew Thomas loaned his campaign $51,000 during the filing period ending September 30, 2014. In order to show that he was competitive, charter industry candidate Ref Rodriguez knew that he had to prove that he was also capable of filling his campaign coffers. He ended 2014 showing that he had raised $50,001. The choices that he made in reaching this achievement would eventually lead to him pleading guilty to felony charges and resigning his Board seat in disgrace.
State Superintendent of Education candidate Marshall Tuck made his first donation to the Rodriguez campaign during the December 2014, push. However, his $500 donation was dwarfed by the “$21,000 in campaign donations from employees of his charter school network, Partnerships to Uplift Communities” that were also made in December. These donors included “a handful of his workers — a janitor, maintenance worker, tutor — [who donated] at or near the contribution limit [of] $1,100.” The details of these donations were filed with the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission on January 12, 2015. Apparently, the ethical questions surrounding these donations did not draw the attention of Tuck, who made his second donation on February 11, 2015.
KPCC brought these questionable donations to the attention of the public in an article dated February 27, 2015. Rodriguez insisted at the time that “the employee contributions weren’t coerced and will not be reimbursed.” Tuck must have taken him at his word as he made a third donation to the campaign on April 23, 2015. Rodriguez won the election and was eventually made the President of the LAUSD School Board. Two years later the house of cards came crashing down.
On September 13, 2017, Rodriguez was charged with “25 counts of ‘assumed name contribution’” for using his own funds to pay back the donors and a felony charge of perjury. While he stepped down as president, he still held onto his seat, even after being arrested for public intoxication. He eventually pled guilty and vacated his Board seat, leaving his former constituents unrepresented.
To be clear, Candidates can return funds from their donors. In fact, Tuck himself “returned a $5,000 contribution from a major backer of Proposition 8, the 2008 initiative that banned same-sex marriages in California.” However, there is no indication that Tuck’s money was returned after the indictment. Tuck was asked by email if he ever requested a refund or if he regrets his support of Rodriguez, but he did not respond. Like the charter schools he represents, he apparently feels that the public has no right to know how he is operating behind the scenes.