Santa Monica Observer - Community, Diversity, Sustainability and other Overused Words

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By Sarah Storkin
Observer Staff Writer 

SMMUSD School Board to Hear Conflict-of-Interest Findings

The investigation expanded to include boardmembers Tony Vasquez, Ralph Mechur & Oscar de la Torre.


January 19, 2018

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A crowd at Santa Monica high school

An internal investigation into the possibility of conflicts of interest among members of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board will be presented at their meeting on Thursday. After the Los Angeles Times broke a story in November, 2017, about potential conflicts of interest regarding School Board Member Maria Leon-Vazquez and her husband, Santa Monica Councilmember Tony Vazquez, the school board launched this internal investigation. The investigation ended up expanding to include boardmembers Ralph Mechur and Oscar de la Torre.

Tonight the seven board members, presumably including those under investigation, will hear a summary of the results and recommendations for the future. The agenda appears to indicate that this will not be the end of the matter, stating, "...additional direction to conduct further review of board policies and regulations and training for board members and senior staff will be discussed."

The original conflict, as researched by the LA Times, involved the fact that Maria Leon-Vazquez, a longtime member of the school board, voted multiple times for contracts worth significant sums of money - in the hundreds of thousands - for two businesses that employed her husband as a "consultant." The apparent impropriety would be that her husband was actually "hired" because of his connection to Maria Leon Vazquez and his ability to influence her vote in favor of the business who paid him.

Since the news broke about Maria and Tony, possible improprieties surfaced regarding Ralph Mechur and Oscar de la Torre. Ralph Mechur's architecture firm designed the Leon-Vazquez home remodel. The alleged misdeed could be that he undercharged in return for votes or for favorable rulings from Tony Vazquez on other architectural projects by Mechur in Santa Monica.

Meanwhile, Oscar de la Torre came under investigation because, before joining the school board, he was employed by a nonprofit whose youth facility Mechur also designed. It is not immediately clear to this writer how this conjunction of facts might imply an impropriety on de la Torre's part. Did he predict he would get elected to the school board and would then be owed a favor by Ralph Mechur?

One significant possible conflict-of-interest that, as far as is known, will NOT be in the internal investigation is Ralph Mechur's longtime romantic association with Linda Greenberg, executive director of the Santa Monica Education Foundation. The SMMEF raises money to support the school district and her well-paid job is at the discretion of the board, to which Ralph Mechur belongs.

Ralph Mechur last his position on the board in 2014 but was appointed back to a seat (by his fellow board members) after board member Ben Allen left his position upon his election to the California State Senate.


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