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District Probe of Santa Monica-Malibu School Board Members Reaching Conclusion

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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

January 4, 2018 -- A district probe of conflict-of-interest allegations, reportedly now widened to three Santa Monica-Malibu school board members, is winding down and due to be unveiled before the entire board when it meets again later this month, a district representative said Wednesday.

Still being finalized, the investigation will include, among other recommendations, how to avoid actions which could prompt such “concerns” in the future, said spokesperson Gail Pinsker.

The school board for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) meets next on January 18, according to its website. The district is on winter break until Monday.

Schools Superintendent Ben Drati announced in mid-November the district had started an investigation on a series of votes cast by Board Member Maria Leon-Vazquez to give contracts to firms that employed her husband, City Council Member Tony Vazquez ("SMMUSD Probes School Board Member Maria Leon-Vazquez Over Votes for Contractors Who Employed Husband," November 14, 2017).

Records show that Leon-Vazquez voted multiple times for contracts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to two businesses that paid her husband as a consultant ("Santa Monica Councilmember Vazquez Acknowledged Potential Conflict Existed," November 14, 2017).

Since beginning, however, the review has expanded and now includes Board Members Ralph Mechur and Oscar de la Torre.

Although Leon-Vazquez has not publicly commented on the allegations, Mechur and de la Torre said they had committed no wrongdoing.

Last month, the Los Angeles Times reported there were business ties between Leon-Vazquez and Mechur, whose architecture firm designed Leon-Vazquez’s home remodel and worked for the couple between 2001 and 2005, according to city records and interviews with Mechur.

The construction included a second-floor addition and a remodel of the first floor and basement. It was valued in city records at $200,000.

Mechur was not then on the school board.

The Times also said the district is also looking at Mechur’s contract work with a nonprofit that employed de la Torre.

“It’s the same scenario as with Ms. Leon Vazquez," Pinsker told the Times. "We are looking into both situations in our review.”

The Times said Mechur’s firm received nearly $30,000 in district purchase orders between 2003 and 2006 for contract work at the district’s Washington West Preschool playground, based on district records.

In 2007, Leon-Vazquez joined in a vote to appoint Mechur to the board, according to school board minutes. De la Torre was absent for the vote, the minutes show.

Mechur told the Times he charged Leon-Vazquez and her husband a flat, market-rate fee.

In 2001, Mechur designed a youth facility for a nonprofit called Community Partners and the city of Santa Monica that would later become the Pico Youth and Family Center that de la Torre now runs.

Mechur was paid about $2,000 to design the framing of the building, a fraction of the $8,000 to $10,000 market rate for the project, de la Torre said. The discount was given because it was for a nonprofit, he said.

De la Torre said he was then an employee of Community Partners and didn’t have authority to approve Mechur’s contract.

“In 2001, I was not on the school board and Ralph Mechur never did architectural work for an organization I run, much less a building I own," de la Torre told the Lookout Wednesday.

“And even if he did, I wasn’t on the board when the work was done,” he said. “So why did the district expand the allegations including my name?

“Usually in these matters, one waits for the facts and then issues a comment,” he said.

Contacted by the Lookout on Wednesday, Mechur said, “I designed projects for both Oscar and Maria prior to my being on the (school) board. I know my actions were fully professional.”

De la Torre expressed considerable frustration with the district's probe, which he said he learned about from the press.

“It’s hard to trust an ‘investigation’ when you get a call from the press before you get a call from the investigator,” de la Torre said. “I’m on the school board and I still don’t know the scope of the investigation?

“Apparently, we can go back to 2001 and include incidents that aren’t relevant to Board member decisions,” he said. “With these parameters, I’m sure there is plenty to discuss.”

Pinsker told the Lookout that when the district’s findings are released, the report will include an “in-depth review of board policies and regulations and training for Board members and senior staff.”

“We can’t and don’t take conflict allegations lightly, sand will continue to ensure the public’s trust is earned and maintained,” she said.

After finishing its probe, the district is expected to ask for an outside review.

The county District Attorney’s Office on Wednesday also said it is “reviewing allegations of conflict of interest."


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