COMMENTARY - Incumbent officeholders have a built-in advantage in seeking reelection as their position gives them ready access to the press, name recognition with the electorate, and the ability to generate goodwill by being generous with the public’s money.
Ethics rules provide some guide rails to prevent overt abuse including the prohibition on using government funds to directly benefit officials seeking reelection. Given the limited nature of these protections, violations must be taken seriously by those responsible for enforcement.
As a lawyer, LAUSD Board Member Nick Melvoin should be adept at reading laws and regulations, but in complaints filed with the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, the LAUSD Ethics Office, and the LAUSD Inspector General, it is alleged that he and his staff recklessly ran afoul of ethics rules meant to ensure that district funds and resources not be used for political activities. The activities flagged in the complaints include promoting his campaign’s Twitter handle and Facebook page on LAUSD owned and operated websites and on the district’s television station. Melvoin is also accused of sharing branding between his LAUSD website and the one operated by his campaign. The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) is also asked to determine if a picture on Melvoin’s campaign website was taken in an LAUSD facility. If it was, the LAUSD needs to determine if permission was given by the students’ parents or guardians to use their images.
Before announcing his intention to run for reelection, Melvoin was using the Twitter handle @NickMelvoin as an LAUSD account. This helped to build the number of followers on the account and achieve Twitter’s coveted blue checkmark. Instead of opening a new account for his reelection activities, he labeled this existing account as one controlled by “Melvoin for School Board 2022-FPPC # 1439298”.
Compounding the ethical problems of converting a government account to one controlled by a campaign is the fact that LAUSD entities are still promoting the same Twitter handle to the benefit of his campaign. Coverage of the Committee of the Whole meeting on August 31, 2021, by KLCS, which is owned and operated by the LAUSD, included the @NickMelvoin handle when he was shown on the screen. The Board District 4 website not only includes the feed from the campaign Twitter account but also provides a link so that users can easily click through. It also provides a link to a Facebook page controlled by the campaign, even though a page for Nick Melvoin, the Government Official, also exists.
Melvoin and his staff also appear to be using the District’s website to enforce branding for the campaign. The logos used on the government site and the campaign site are essentially the same with identical fonts and colors along with an apple dotting the “i” in Melvoin. The only difference is that the LAUSD School Board logo is included on the district version and the phrase “Educator For School Board” is replaced by “Putting Kids First” in the campaign version of the logo. It should be noted that “Kids First” is a slogan that is also used by the campaign and that Melvoin is a lawyer by trade, not an “educator.”
The branding confusion is furthered by the use of identical content on the two pages. An example is a picture of Melvoin at a press conference with Mayor Eric Garcetti. This interchangeability makes the website owned and maintained by the district appear to be an extension of the site used to promote Melvoin’s candidacy.
These are not Melvoin’s or his campaign’s first forays into ethically questionable behavior. In 2019 Michael Kohlhaas dot org obtained documents that revealed that he had provided confidential information to the California Charter School Association (CCSA) while the trade association was in the process of suing the district to prevent funds from being spent to make schools more accessible for those with disabilities. These same documents detailed how the CCSA was using Melvoin to push through a scheme that would provide them with another pathway to obtaining district facilities. Last year, a leader from Speak Up, an organization connected to Melvoin’s first candidacy, impersonated LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner as she campaigned for Tanya Ortiz Franklin and Marilyn Koziatek.
As a member of a school board, Melvoin serves as a role model for the students of the district and his behavior should be above reproach. The behavior outlined in these complaints displays an ”end justifies the means” approach to his office that betrays this responsibility. Even if he does not end up facing the same consequences as his ally, convicted felon Ref Rodriguez, he has shown that he has no business representing district students. If the city and the LAUSD do not have the courage to hold him responsible, then the voters need to step up to do the job during next year’s election.
Carl Petersen is a parent, an advocate for students with special education needs, an elected member of the Northridge East Neighborhood Council, a member of the LAUSD’s CAC, and was a Green Party candidate in LAUSD’s District 2 School Board race. During the campaign, he was endorsed by the Network for Public Education (NPE) Action and Dr. Diane Ravitch called him a “strong supporter of public schools.” His past blogs can be found at www.ChangeTheLAUSD.com. Opinions are his own.