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Santa Monica-Malibu School Board Member Vows to Produce Documentation Clearing Him in Conflict of Interest Queries

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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

February 2, 2018 -- Santa Monica-Malibu school board member Ralph Mechur said Thursday he will provide all documentation needed to clear him of conflict-of-interest allegations being pursued by investigators for the District Attorney’s Office and California’s Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC).

Mechur, a school board member since 2015, was cleared of inappropriate action in mid-January in a two-month internal investigation by the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) ("District Probe of Santa Monica-Malibu School Board Member Shies Away from Judgment," January 19, 2018).

The controversy, however, most heavily involves fellow Board Member Maria Leon-Vazquez for repeatedly voting to approve district contracts for vendors which employed her husband, Council Member Tony Vazquez, as a consultant.

The district probe shied away from making judgments on Leon-Vazquez’s actions, although she neither recused herself from voting nor notified the district of a potential conflict at the time of the votes ("Santa Monica Councilmember Vazquez Acknowledged Potential Conflict Existed," November 14, 2017).

Neither Leon-Vazquez nor her husband returned calls for comment on Thursday.

Also on Thursday, a spokesperson for the FPPC said it is reviewing the controversy’s allegations. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office also has opened a probe.

Mechur is part of the probe because Leon-Vazquez also voted to approve a purchase order with the district for his architectural services “shortly after” he had finished a remodeling job at the Vazquez home.

The vote occurred before Mechur’s appointment in January 2015, the internal SMMUSD 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,” School Superintendent Ben Drati said in issuing a summary of findings at a January 18 board meeting.

“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,” using “best practices” as guidance.

Mechur on Thursday said -- as he has since the beginning -- that he did not give the Vazquezes a discount for their remodeling job and that it is not uncommon for the board, “up to a certain amount,” to approve an expenditure until a job is finished.

“I’ll be able to provide substantiation (that no discount or favors were provided to the Vazquezes) as soon as I can complete (compiling) the records,” he said.

His architecture firm, Ralph Mechur Associates, designed Leon-Vazquez's home remodel, working for the couple between 2001 and 2005.

The construction, which building permits show included a second-floor addition and a remodel of the first floor and basement, was valued in city records at $200,000, according to news reports.

Mechur was appointed to the board of education in January 2015 to fill the seat vacated after Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) was elected to the state senate that November.

Mechur defeated eight other candidates for the right to fill the seat, winning support from four of the six deliberating SMMUSD board members -- Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein, Leon-Vazquez, Oscar de la Torre and Jose Escarce.

He was up for election to a full term in November 2016. But only Mechur, Leon-Vazquez and newcomer Jon Kean filed for the three seats then expiring.

As a result, the three were elected to the board by default.


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