SMMUSD recommends board members pay more attention to conflicts of interest

By Gary Walker

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s investigation of whether a school board member cast votes to benefit contractors employing her city councilman husband stops short of determining whether laws were broken, but does conclude that the district must pay more attention to potential conflicts of interest.

The findings were strong enough, however, for one board member to imply the target of the probe, board member Maria Leon-Vazquez, should resign.

Revelations that Leon-Vasquez voted multiple times to approve contracts with the business management company Keygent and the economic development nonprofit TELACU while they were being represented by husband Tony Vasquez’s political consulting firm first came to light late last year in a Los Angeles Times report. Leon-Vasquez did not disclose that her husband was a paid consultant retained to lobby the district on behalf of these companies.

Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office spokesman Greg Risling has confirmed the agency’s Public Integrity Division is investigating allegations of conflict of interest that would violate state ethics law.

The internal probe by SMMUSD attorney Howard Friedman found that contracts approved with Keygent in 2009 and 2017 included a paragraph stating Vazquez & Associates “is not retained to provide any services in connection with the district,” but recommends better communication among board members and that district staff should be trained to raise ‘red flags’ about possible conflicts of interest.

After hearing Friedman’s report at the board’s Jan. 18 meeting, board member Craig Foster wished aloud that other agencies would probe deeper.

“What I’m left with is that I hope the FPPC [state Fair Political Practices Commission] and the district attorney’s office take an interest in this. With the pattern of facts that we have, I would suggest to Maria that this could be a good time to retire,” said Foster, a Malibu teacher elected in 2014.

“We can’t just sit back and say ‘Oh, we’ll lock the door.’ It’s negligence as a board member not to read the darn calendar,” he continued. “And when your family is paid by people on that calendar, you have an exponentially larger responsibility. It’s not complicated.”

Board member Laurie Lieberman said she agreed the board must adhere to the highest ethical standards, but chastised Foster for what she described as “hyperbole.”

“To compare or to imply that taking lessons from this and trying to look forward to prevent this kind of thing from happening again is akin to what the Republicans are doing with Donald Trump and turning a blind eye is just patently ridiculous. And I resent that,” Lieberman asserted.