SMMUSD board member Craig Foster called for the retirement of fellow board member Maria Leon-Vasquez during a review of findings concerning a conflict of interest case at this week’s board meeting.
Leon-Vazquez has been accused of voting on contracts with companies that employed her husband, Santa Monica councilman Tony Vazquez. The couple have denied they were intentionally trying to circumvent ethics rules and Tony has stated the votes were the result of his wife failing to fully read dense agendas.
The Board conducted a review of the factual events surrounding the accusations and presented its findings on Jan. 18 prompting Foster to liken the situation to the dysfunction present at higher levels of government.
“I hope that our friends at the FPPC and at the DA take interest in this matter,” Foster said, referring to the California Fair Political Practices Commission and District Attorney. “With the pattern of facts presented, I suggest to Maria that this would be a good time to retire. This will not sit comfortably and I don’t know where it goes from here.”
Foster added to his earlier comment that, “negligence as a board member is to not read the consent calendar. If your family is being paid on it, it’s an exponential responsibility. I’ll stop there.”
Board member Laura Lieberman condemned Foster’s statements, calling such rhetoric “unfair and dangerous,” stating comments such as his create distrust of government. She said in at least one case, the agenda documents misspelled “Vazquez” which could have prevented Boardmembers from understanding the potential conflict.
“I don’t know if anyone can absorb every single detail in a contract that’s not in a cover piece,” Lieberman said. “‘Vazquez’ is a common name, it can be missed.” She also added, “If I thought there was intent, I would be concerned. If the DA thinks there’s something to look into, it should be done. However, we have to rededicate ourselves to being thorough and pointing things out, to each other.”
Howard Friedman, an attorney retained by the district, performed the internal investigation.
The review concluded there were nine votes split between two companies (Keygent and TELACU) that had business dealings with Tony. The report found each contract was approved by a unanimous vote and Maria did not disclose the business relationship or abstain from the vote.
Friedman said the review was not an official investigation by a law enforcement agency and did not make judgments as to wrong doing. He described it as a description of the facts surrounding the votes and a means of providing advice on best practices.
“Board members should announce and abstain from discussing, deliberating or taking action on items that would give the appearance of impropriety,” he said recommending that internal communication, issue spotting, and training be improved for staff and board members.
Although the internal investigation has no subpoena powers, FPPC or DOA can perform a more comprehensive investigation, especially with subpoena powers. It remains to be seen if the DA or FPPC will take action concerning the case.
Additional concerns had been raised regarding the relationships between Boardmembers Ralph Mechur, Oscar De La Torre and Maria. Mechur had been hired in his professional capacity as an architect to work on projects connected to De La Torre and Maria before he joined the board. The report said all actions related to those relationships were appropriate and no action was recommended.
While some Boardmembers said the next steps should focus on improving education, awareness and preventative measures, Foster said more investigation needs to occur.
“What is needed is to follow this through to a conclusion and to conclude it so there’s no wondering, concern, or doubt,” Foster said. “I say this both in possibility that someone be cleared and others might not.”