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District Probe of Santa Monica-Malibu School Board Member Shies Away from Judgment

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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

January 19, 2018 -- Findings from a district probe of conflict-of-interest allegations released Thursday shied away from passing judgment on the school board member who was the original target, although two others appeared to be cleared of wrongdoing.

The internal investigation by the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) determined the actions of School Board Members Ralph Mecher and Oscar de la Torre were “appropriate” using the yardstick of “best practices.”

But the findings did not include the same determination for Board Member Maria Leon-Vazquez, who was found to have voted for contractors who had employed her husband, City Council Member Tony Vazquez.

In a summary of the investigation given to the board at its Thursday meeting, Superintendent Ben Drati said Leon-Vazquez had joined in voting for contracts with at least two entities -- Keygent and TELACU -- which have, or had, employed Vazquez and Associates, her husband’s consulting firm.

“It is our current understanding that Mr. Vazquez' company did no work for Keygent in connection with its District contracts,” Drati said.

“However, it has been reported that Mr. Vazquez did arrange for a breakfast meeting in 2014 (about three years before Board action on TELACU contracts), with the then Superintendent of the District, at which TELACU's services were discussed.

Vazquez also attended a 2012 breakfast meeting with the then-District business official Jan Maez at which construction management and fiscal services were discussed, although Maez does not recall “what company or companies may have been mentioned at that meeting,” Drati said in the summary.

Drati opened the investigation in November following news reports about the votes by Leon-Vazquez. The law firm of Fagen, Friedman and Fulfrost assisted.

In the summary, Drati said the Keygent contracts approved by the board in 2009 and 2017 included “a paragraph noting that it had retained Vazquez & Associates as a consultant but that the Vazquez company ‘is not retained to provide any services in connection with the District.'”

Keygent is a financial services firm.

In each case, the contracts were approved by unanimous votes. However, Leon-Vazquez voted each time “without announcing any relationship between her husband's business and Keygent and/or abstaining from discussing or voting to approve the contract,” the findings said.

The same was true for votes of approval on multiple contracts with TELACU (The East Los Angeles Community Union) a nonprofit community development company.

The contracts were on the board’s “consent calendar,” a part of meeting agendas usually reserved for routine business matters.

The “board actions” regarding Leon-Vazquez for her votes involving Keygent and TELACU were the same, the findings said.

“Board members should announce and abstain from discussing, deliberating or taking action on items that would give the ‘appearance of impropriety;’e.g., where improper considerations of personal advantage might interfere with a Board member’s disinterested exercise of his/her duties,” the investigation concluded.

It also said board members and staff “should be aware, and attempt to determine whether and when Board members are financially interested in contracts. If a financial interest exists, best practice may include the Board not acting on the contract(s) at all.”

No action was taken by the board. Drati will return later with recommendations of next steps.

The probe was more straightforward in its conclusions about Mechur and De La Torre, both of whom appear to have been included as the investigation evolved.

Mechur's architecture firm designed Leon-Vazquez’s home remodel, as well as a youth facility for a nonprofit that employed De La Torre before he joined the board ("District Probe of Santa Monica-Malibu School Board Members Reaching Conclusion," January 4, 2018).

But Mechur’s work for Leon-Vazquez was prior his appointment and reappointment in 2015, the report said.

“There is no information to suggest that there was any discount on services, or any communication between Mr. Mechur and the Vazquezes regarding Board business, including appointments to fill any Board vacancy,” Drati said.

“Familiarity with a Board candidate by means of friendship or professional interaction, without more, generally would not support a finding of a conflict of interest,” he said in finding Mechur’s actions appropriate.

De La Torre, who also heads the Pico Youth and Family Center, received the same finding.

De La Torre “neither owned the building in which the architectural services were performed, nor did he have the authority to contract architectural services from Mr. Mechur,” the report said.

“There is no information to suggest that there was any discount on services as a quid pro quo for any District related consideration, or any communication between Mr. de la Torre and Mr. Mechur regarding Board business, including appointments to fill any Board vacancy,” Drati wrote.

Mechur also did work for United Here, Local 11, a union which tried to organize workers at the Doubletree Hotel in Santa Monica, which was built on district property. His work, however, ended before his board tenure, the investigation found.


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