Mon, May

Unusual Donations Raise Ethical Concerns in Graciela Ortiz's School Board Campaign


ELECTION 2024 - When we talk about those who spend big to influence L.A. elections, one job unlikely to be cited is dishwasher. But that may be changing with the campaign of Huntington Park City Council member Graciela Ortiz, now running for L.A. School Board. 

Not one but three people listed in official records as “dishwasher” managed to make $1,300 donations to Ortiz’ newest campaign for School Board. That amount happens to be the maximum amount allowable from an individual donor to a School Board candidate. The dishwashers appear to work at the same eatery. They appear to have made the exceedingly generous donations on the same day in September.

No other dishwasher in the history of modern record-keeping in L.A. City campaigns has ever made a maximum donation to a candidate, much less three dishwashers, on the same day. 

This rather odd coincidence of enormous windfalls to a single candidate from 3 traditionally low-wage workers raises questions whether they, as individuals, are the source of the money. Or might another, wealthier person or entity be the actual source of the money? And might they have used the dishwashers as a conduit to funnel the money to the Ortiz campaign? 

This red flag in the campaign fund-raising of Graciela Ortiz is not the first time this peculiarity has appeared. In 2015, a School Board candidate in the very same Board District 5 seat that she is seeking — a charter-school treasurer named Ref Rodríguez — reported a similar pattern of maximum contributions to his campaign by entry-level, low-wage workers employed at his charter schools. 

Rodríguez narrowly won the District 5 seat in May 2015 after repetitive mailings that misleadingly depicted himself as supported by Democrats like Jerry Brown. But an ethics complaint over his deceptive declaration of donors ultimately led to a finding that they were fraudulent. 

Rodríguez was indicted, arrested, and arraigned in fall 2017 for fraud and money laundering. Eventually he resigned in disgrace from the School Board seat in July 2018 under a plea agreement in which he admitted his guilt for reimbursing the phony donors.

Under city and state law, it is illegal to disguise the true source of contributions to a campaign for public office. It is also illegal to attribute money received by a campaign to a false donor or in an inaccurate amount in order to circumvent campaign-finance rules. That ethics violation is what got Ref Rodríguez criminally charged and chased off the School Board. 

But the strange case of the dishwashers’ money is not the only issue that raises ethics questions about Graciela Ortiz. 

In 2019, the sudden resignation by Rodríguez prompted a special election in Board District 5. Ortiz competed in that contest, ultimately losing in the primary election. 

One of her tactics sparked serious concerns by some labor leaders and other observers. In a series of campaign mailings, Ortiz used her appearance in earlier public-relations advertisements by the teachers’ union to falsely suggest that she was the union’s endorsed candidate. In 2019, she wasn’t. That distinction belonged to Jackie Goldberg, who went on to win the seat. Ortiz’ misleading communication was a whopper. It did not work to get her enough votes, even to get into the runoff. 

Now, with School Board President Goldberg retiring in 2024, Ortiz and her supporters may be even more determined to push her to the winner’s circle. But the ethics rules are not advisory. They are mandatory, as Ref Rodríguez learned the hard way. Breaking ethics rules that require honest disclosure of campaign donations is a stain on the Ortiz campaign. 

Graciela Ortiz seems to be bending the truth by running afoul of ethics rules in her campaign for a School Board seat. Angelenos do not need to live through a rerun of the Ref Rodríguez scandal in the School Board race in District 5. There are better candidates to choose from, and Graciela Ortiz may have already disqualified herself. 

(Alicia Romero Pérez is a public school teacher of 29 years. The opinions expressed are those of Ms. Pérez and necessarily those of CityWatchLA.)

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