LAUSD candidate under district investigation, removed from school counseling job during probe

Huntington Park, CA - December 14: Huntington Park Council Member Graciela Ortiz poses for a portrait in front of her stomping grounds of her alma mater at Miles Elementary on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2023 in Huntington Park, CA. (Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)
Graciela Ortiz poses for a portrait in front of Miles Elementary School in Huntington Park in December. Ortiz is running for a Los Angeles Board of Education seat. (Michael Blackshire/Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles school board candidate Graciela Ortiz has been removed from her job as an L.A. Unified counseling administrator pending a confidential investigation, school district officials confirmed, leading a school employees union to withdraw its endorsement of her for the March 5 election.

The investigation was launched after a civil lawsuit was filed alleging Ortiz and a political ally are liable for the actions of a campaign worker, who pleaded no contest to sexual misconduct with an underage volunteer. Both the perpetrator and victim were involved in campaign work in 2021 for Ortiz and Efren Martinez, according to the suit, filed Jan. 9 in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Martinez is running for election in the 57th state Assembly District, which takes in parts of downtown L.A., South L.A. and southeast L.A. County. Ortiz is a Huntington Park City Council member running to represent school board District 5, which runs north to south along an eastern swath of the Los Angeles Unified School District, taking in Eagle Rock and cities including Maywood and Bell.

In the criminal case, Billy Valdivia, the campaign worker, also pleaded no contest to a weapons charge, according to court records. He's also a defendant in the civil suit.

The suit seeks unspecified damages for the female sexual abuse victim, identified as "B.A."

An attorney for Ortiz and Martinez, Robert P. Sievers, demanded in a letter to the plaintiff's attorney that the case be dropped, calling the allegations "malicious and defamatory" as well as a carefully timed political "smear."

Neither Ortiz nor Martinez answered questions submitted to them via email from The Times. Nor did they consent to be interviewed. Neither Sievers nor attorneys from Lyfe Law, which also has been representing Ortiz and Martinez, responded to emailed questions.

Political consultant Mike Trujillo provided a blanket statement by text and email to detailed questions.

“Like Taylor Swift’s song 'Shake It Off' the court will dismiss this politically motivated lawsuit. Also every major public safety organization like our own LAUSD school police officers have endorsed Councilwoman Graciela Ortiz because they know she will make our schools safer,” said Trujillo, who added that he also is working for candidates in the three other board races.

Read more: Your guide to the LAUSD District 5 school board primary election

"This is our reply/comment to every question you have asked," he added in a text.

Ortiz, 43, lost an earlier bid for the school board in 2019 to Jackie Goldberg, who is retiring. Ortiz's council post is part-time. Her full-time job has been as a school support administrator overseeing counselors. But during the events related in the lawsuit, she was a school counselor, as she had been most of her district career, which began in 2006.

L.A. Unified confirmed that Ortiz has been removed from her position "pending the outcome of a formal investigation," a district spokesperson said. The district declined to provide additional information.

Citing the issues raised in the lawsuit and the ongoing investigation, one union, Chapter 500 of California School Employees Assn., has withdrawn its endorsement of Ortiz. That union represents about 4,000 employees, including library aides and clerical and business service staff at schools.

Ortiz is supported by the campaign's biggest spender: Local 99 of Service Employees International Union, which represents about 30,000 employees including cafeteria workers, custodians, teacher aides, security aides and bus drivers.

Local 99 spent $708,191 through Friday on behalf of Ortiz, and also has provided members to campaign door to door.

Ortiz "has consistently demonstrated a profound commitment to supporting children and families," Local 99 spokesperson Blanca Gallegos said Thursday. "From our understanding, it was Graciela’s cooperation in the investigation of the incident that led to" the no-contest plea by Valdivia.

A campaign volunteer

During the 2018-19 school year, B.A. attended Marquez High School in Huntington Park. She got to know Ortiz, who was a counselor and the faculty advisor to the Key Club, to which the student belonged, according to the lawsuit.

Ortiz recruited B.A. and other students to work on her unsuccessful 2019 school board campaign, a special election to fill an open seat, the lawsuit states. The COVID-19 pandemic lockdown closed schools in March 2020, but B.A. reconnected with Ortiz later that year at a Christmas toy drive, the lawsuit states.

Read more: Voter guide to the 2024 California primary election

At the urging of Ortiz, B.A. joined in another campaign effort in early 2021 to help Martinez win election to the local Democratic Party Executive Committee, according to the suit.

Also involved in the 2021 effort for Martinez was Valdivia, described in the lawsuit as a "personal friend" of Martinez who created video and advertising for the campaign office and drove volunteers around as they carried out campaign work.

The suit alleges that Ortiz "was the primary person in charge of the campaign, organizing the volunteers and giving talks on a daily basis at the campaign headquarters to instruct the volunteers on what to do, including interactions with Billy Valdivia," who helped direct the efforts of the young volunteers.

Valdivia, who was 44 at the time, socialized with underage students, purchased alcohol for them and drove them around, according to the lawsuit. He would drop off B.A. last, gradually grooming the 16-year-old for a sexual relationship, sometimes taking her to his apartment, the lawsuit alleges.

B.A. told her family about the physical contact — and they notified Huntington Park police, who set up a sting, according to the suit. B.A. requested a one-on-one meeting with Valdivia, and when he arrived — driving a vehicle borrowed from Martinez — officers arrested him, the lawsuit states.

Officers found photos and video on Valdivia's phone that supported B.A.'s account, according to the lawsuit. At the time of his arrest, he was carrying an unregistered firearm. At least one other weapon was found at his residence, the lawsuit states.

Valdivia was charged with three felony counts related to weapons and one misdemeanor count for annoying or molesting a victim younger than 18. He pleaded no contest to two counts: improperly carrying a loaded firearm in public and the annoyance/molestation count, according to criminal court records.

He received a two-year suspended sentence that included credit for 46 days in custody and had to register as a sex offender, court records show.

Lawsuit questions

At issue in the civil lawsuit against Martinez and Ortiz is whether they were negligent in hiring and supervising Valdivia and allowing him to interact with minors. It alleges that Ortiz and Martinez should have carried out a background check on Valdivia, and that if they had they would have found court records showing that he was a potential risk.

A review of limited court documents, which include a name and a case number, indicate that an individual named Billy Valdivia faced gun charges in the 1990s. The Times was unable to verify if it is the same person because the case records, which would include a date of birth, have been destroyed.

The court records also show a domestic dispute involving an individual named Billy Valdivia with the same birth date as the campaign worker. In this case, Valdivia's then-wife alleged he was violent and sought a restraining order against him, according to court documents. The restraining order was briefly in force. There is no indication that charges were filed.

Both the weapons cases and the domestic dispute occurred more than 20 years ago.

Valdivia and his attorney on the criminal case, Albert Robles, did not respond to emails and phone calls from The Times.

In his letter — emailed to The Times by B.A.'s attorney — Sievers denied a connection between B.A. and the campaigns of Ortiz and Martinez: "This claim also is not true as B.A. was never a volunteer or a part of the 2020 campaigns and no one in the campaign knows her."

However, Mike Navia, a former Huntington Park Police Department detective who supervised the case, said that B.A. was a campaign volunteer during the relevant period and had regular contact with Ortiz, Martinez and Valdivia.

Navia no longer works for the city, having lost his job in the wake of a public dispute when, as a police union leader, he criticized city officials, including Ortiz.

Thomas Scully, B.A.'s attorney, produced a letter of recommendation that Ortiz wrote praising B.A.'s campaign help in 2019.

He added it's standard practice for a victim to sue an employer because the perpetrator typically has no assets to recover as damages.

"The duty of care is heightened in this case because the victim was a minor," Scully said. "She had been enticed from a school setting where there was a special relationship between herself and a former school counselor that would lull her into a reasonable belief that she, as a volunteer, would be taken care of."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.