An SMMUSD board member may be in hot water for voting to approve public contracts with companies that employed her city councilman husband

By Gary Walker

SMMUSD board member Maria Leon-Vazquez and Santa Monica City Councilman Tony Vazquez

As L.A. County prosecutors and school district attorneys investigate votes cast by a Santa Monica-Malibu Board of Education member that appear to benefit contractors that employed her Santa Monica city councilman husband, school board members are already beginning to rethink how they do business.

SMMUSD board member Maria Leon-Vazquez, one of the leading voices against Malibu’s efforts to break away and form its own independent school district, appears to have cast several votes to approve contracts that were paying consulting fees to her husband, Santa Monica City Councilman Tony Vazquez.

The contracts in question came up on the board’s consent calendar, in which routine or low-cost agenda items are bundled together for a sweep vote. Consent calendar votes take place without board discussion, unless a member requests an item be pulled for deeper consideration.

The votes in question date from this year to as far back as 2008 and came to light earlier this month in a report by the Los Angeles Times.

Neither Vazquez nor Leon-Vazquez returned calls for comment, but Vazquez told the Santa Monica Daily Press last week that his wife “didn’t even know she was voting on these things,” noting that the school board consent calendars “are pretty thick.”

SMMUSD board member Oscar de la Torre said that wherever the investigations lead, he hopes the board will take action to change how it conducts contract approvals and other public expenditures that typically show up in the consent calendar.

“This incident has caused us to reflect on what we’re doing. I’m hoping that we review our protocols as to how we vote because those votes, as we are learning, are challenging. They can have an impact on many decisions,” De la Torre said.

According to SMMUSD spokeswoman Gail Pinsker, the district’s investigation into Leon-Vazquez’s votes will also include an audit of how the board
makes decisions.

“At this time, we are in the process of gathering information and facts related to the board’s and board member Leon-Vazquez’s votes and working with legal counsel,” reads a statement by Pinsker. “We will be conducting an audit of our practices and process. We will fully cooperate with any investigation regarding this matter.”

“Yes, the consent calendar is one of the practices that the district will be reviewing,” confirmed SMMUSD President Laurie Lieberman.

As has been widely reported, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office is “aware of the allegations, and we are reviewing them,” spokesman Greg Risling confirmed.

The most recent votes now under scrutiny occurred May 4, when Leon-Vasquez voted in support of school district contracts with two companies that employed her husband as a paid consultant — both items appearing on the board’s consent calendar.

These votes included a $92,800 contract with TELACU Construction Management for window, paint, flooring and doorway upgrades at Webster and Roosevelt elementary schools. There were six bids for the work, but TELACU was deemed “most qualified” by the district’s Facility Improvement Projects staff, according to board records.

Leon-Vazquez also voted that day to expand an existing contract with Keygent LLC by $80,500 for financial consulting services in connection with school district bond funds. In 2010, Leon-Vazquez had voted via consent calendar to have the same firm review the school district’s medical, dental and vision insurance plans.

Both TELACU and Keygent received district contracts while Vazquez was on their payroll.

In a November 2016 deposition related to the Pico Neighborhood Association’s ongoing Voting Rights Act lawsuit against the city, Vazquez said he had previously spoken with his wife about potential votes on contracts for companies that employ him.

“My wife, she said that, if it ever — it never got that far, but if it ever got to a point where it was brought before the board to vote, that she was going to recuse herself anyways,” Vazquez said in the deposition.

(The lawsuit contends the city’s current at-large method of electing council members disenfranchises Latino voters by diffusing support for Latino board candidates. De La Torre is a Pico Neighborhood Association activist who ran for council last year and finished two places behind the four incumbents who won reelection.)

Under oath, Vazquez said he did not consider it to be a conflict of interest to promote TEACLU’s services to the school district even though his wife was a school board member.

“No, because I wasn’t the one pitching it,” he said.

The California Fair Political Practices Commission states conflict of interest guidelines in Regulation 18700, which states: “A public official at any level of state or local government has a prohibited conflict of interest and may not make, participate in making, or in any way use or attempt to use his or her official position to influence a governmental decision when he or she knows or has reason to know he or she has a disqualifying financial interest. A public official has a disqualifying financial interest if the decision will have a reasonably foreseeable material financial effect, distinguishable from the effect on the public generally, directly on the official, or his or her immediate family, or on any financial interest” of the official.

Financial interests include a business interests, real property and entities or persons who have been a source of income or gifts to the official.

In Feb. 2015, the Fair Political Practices Commission levied a $5,000 fine against a Solano Beach Unified School District board member for twice voting to approve consent calendar purchase orders in which
he had a financial interest.

“It’s incumbent on public officials to know their responsibilities. We do have an advice division and a legal division to give public officials advice on these matters,” Fair Political Practices Commission spokesman
Jay Wierenga said.

Asked about recusal — opting not to vote on an item even if there is a gray area — “Generally speaking, that would be a good policy if there is a doubt,” Wierenga said. “Conflict of interest is
a serious matter.”