Ontario Councilor Freddy Rodriguez speaks at Monday's city council meeting. (The Enterprise/Angelina Katsanis)
ONTARIO – When Freddy Rodriguez ran for Ontario City Council in 2018, he was seen as the candidate who could close the gap between those governing and the governed.
With no political experience and a background that included periods of homelessness, Rodriguez wasn’t like any other candidate running.
By then, he had lived in Ontario for three years, moving from Idaho. He volunteered on committees, including the city’s Diversity Advisory Committee.
During his campaign, he alerted voters that he had seen “a darker, unspoken side of local Ontario politics, community crimes, and local business undertaking.”
He took his council seat in January 2019, earning praise for his diligence and attention to city business.
He later described himself as a “fierce local political badass.”
His personal life became a public issue the following year, when a former girlfriend accused him of abusive treatment.
That case brought into view a string of domestic abuse allegations dating back more than a decade, established by an investigation by the Enterprise.
Those accusations form the foundation of an effort now to recall him, with voters in Ontario set to decide in the next month whether to remove him from office. Rodriguez chose to fight the petition rather than resign and avoid the public vote.
Rodriguez, 39, has reacted with pugnacity. He uses his Facebook page to go after critics, ranging from the recall petitioner to his fellow councilors.
He declined to answer detailed questions from the Enterprise, instead posting selected questions to his Facebook page and declaring he would not respond. On Monday night, he said in a live online appearance that “those questions are perfect questions for the community to be informed about” but he wouldn’t answer because his responses would be “chopped up.”
That a newcomer to government can so roil Ontario’s politics can be traced to Rodriguez’s conduct and the freewheeling ways of social media.
When running for the office, Rodriguez said,”I understand and am fully ready to weather public outcry when making difficult unpopular but necessary decisions and will not hide from responding accurately on my decisions with zero spinning of answers.”
But he has a record of turning on those who criticize him - from portraying himself as the victim of the women claiming abuse to fellow councilors who have acted against his behavior in office.
“They manipulate rules, laws, and ordinances to fit their special interest needs,” Rodriguez said of his fellow councilors earlier this month without offering any proof.
And he has insisted that the recall effort was based on faulty information - that there have been “no arrests” and “no evidence.”
Yet with no evidence he recently mounted a highly public effort to portray a former city councilor, Marty Justus, of engaging in child molestation. Police records showed Rodriguez had provided police only hearsay that investigators later dismissed as unfounded. Justus is now threatening to sue the city.
Rodriguez is no stranger to criminal allegations, court and police records show.
Records from Greenfield, California, document that Rodriguez was arrested in 2003 for spousal battery and false imprisonment. No court records remain to show the disposition of the case, but Rodriguez said Monday that he was arrested after grabbing and holding a girlfriend by her sweater when she tried to leave. He said he pleaded guilty, took a year of domestic violence classes, and did 30 days of community service.
He faced more domestic abuse allegations after he moved to Idaho.
In 2010, he was charged with domestic battery. Court and police records said Rodriguez became angry while the mother of his child was visiting his apartment and ran across the room, “knocking her to the ground.”
Rodriguez told police that he merely bumped the victim, who fell, but then she rose to push him and the child onto a couch.
Rodriguez avoided a criminal conviction by taking a 12-week “Men’s Healthy Relationship” course. The charge was dismissed in December 2010 after he had taken five of the classes.
That same year, he was arrested for domestic violence involving his then-girlfriend, court records showed. The woman said that Rodriguez wouldn’t let her leave a bedroom and threatened her with physical violence while asking her to apologize to the mother of his child for statements she had made about their daughter.
By Rodriguez’s account to police, he asked but did not force the woman to step into the bedroom. He said that he called his ex-girlfriend and was holding the phone to his then-girlfriend’s ear when she tried to grab the phone, scratching him.
On Monday, Rodriguez said that “she called my daughter fat” and “I lost my temper at that point.” He said he told the victim, "This makes me feel like hurting you."
In that case, Rodriguez was charged with false imprisonment and an enhanced penalty for the domestic assault due to the presence of a child witness.
Court records show he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, had a sentence of 180 days in jail suspended with credit for two days served, was put on two years’ probation and required to take a year of domestic battery treatment.
He addressed the Idaho cases in a personal Facebook post in March.
“None of those have any claims of beating or touching in any way and they were amended down,” Rodriguez wrote.
Earlier this year, Rodriguez said in a court hearing that he finished the various classes with “flying colors.”
Rodriguez said Monday night he moved to Ontario in part to get public medical benefits not available in Idaho.
Records show that since his arrival he has worked in a grocery store deli, served as a caregiver, and a cell phone service.
A year ago, a former girlfriend went to Malheur County Circuit Court to get a restraining order to keep Rodriguez away from her. The woman said in her filing that he had “made me fear that I was about to be physically injured.”
She also claimed that Rodriguez had threatened to kill an employee of hers and Pat Caldwell, a reporter at the Enterprise whom she once dated.
The Enterprise does not identify victims of domestic abuse.
Rodriguez at the time called these “atrocious false accusations” and asserted that the judge’s finding that he was a credible threat to the woman was “based on ZERO evidence.”
The evidence submitted with the woman’s petition for the restraining order included emails she said were from Rodriguez in which he repeatedly asked her for money and threatened to expose details of her personal life.
“In May, he came to me wanting money for a vehicle,” the woman wrote. “I told him that’s not appropriate. He responded I owe him for all the things I had done to him. He kept asking and making me feel guilty by adding that his daughter needed it. I broke down and finally helped him to get him to leave.”
Rodriguez contested the order – and then sought one himself against her. The councilor, who court filings said is about 6-foot-3 and about 240 pounds, said the woman “led me to believe she can hurt me through her ex’s/employees,” and that two former boyfriends “would happily loan or acquire” a weapon for her.
His request for protection was dismissed, but the order restraining against him was upheld and remains in force. Rodriguez said he intends to contest it again as the victim has sought to have it renewed for another year.
Later in 2020, a second woman obtained a temporary restraining order against Rodriguez, saying she feared he would harm her.
The woman claimed that Rodriguez, who was homeless at the time but moving into a fifth-wheel trailer then hitched to a friend’s truck, had tried to make off with the truck and trailer without her permission.
“He barged in(to my house) and pushed pas(t) me,” she wrote in her filing. Then, according to her account, Rodriguez pinned her up against a hutch, grabbed the keys to her friend’s truck, and scratched her on the neck in the process. He later threw the keys at her along with a piece that fell off the truck, she said.
To support her account, the woman submitted a handwritten statement from her 11-year-old daughter. The girl wrote that Rodriguez “took the keys from my mom and it hurt her” and “I was scared.”
At a court hearing, Rodriguez successfully contested the order, presenting as a witness the mother of his earlier victim. The witness said she didn’t see Rodriguez go into the house or otherwise abuse the woman. The judge dismissed the order.
The Malheur County Sheriff’s Office subsequently conducted a criminal investigation, but its results remain confidential while prosecutors consider whether to bring charges.
Rodriguez’s political fortunes seemed to improve in January, when colleagues elected him council president. The position is largely ceremonial, but means that he can run the meeting if the mayor is not present.
“I’ll continue to give my best to council president to the highest regard and exercise,” Rodriguez posted on his Facebook page.
But matters spiraled into political unrest through the spring.
He insinuated on Facebook that Community Serve Day, an Ontario volunteer event, hadn’t selected his projects because they were “east side low-income projects.”
Tammy Vogt, Community Serve Day director, said that Rodriguez had not submitted any projects for consideration using the group’s official process, and wrote to city councilors asking them to address what she characterized as Rodriguez’s “libelous” accusations. They took no public action.
When Citizens Coalition for Ontario appeared to criticize him, Rodriguez labeled the civic organization a “hate group.”
On Monday, Rodriguez said in his online appearance that “if you bully me, you’re most likely to get bullied.”
He addressed the recall petition claim that he bullies people online.
“It’s my understanding that it appears like bullying,” Rodriguez said. “I myself will acknowledge that it does appear like that.”
In March, he went public with his accusations against Justus, speaking at a council session. Justus, watching the broadcast of the meeting, was so angered by the allegations that he drove to City Hall and confronted Rodriguez from the public lectern.
Rodriguez subsequently implied on his Facebook page that the allegations were true and at an April 20 council session he referred to Justus as a “chomo.” Justus is openly gay.
At a May 6 city council meeting, Rodriguez placed a handwritten sign over his council name tag, referring to allegations against Justus.
Councilor Eddie Melendrez asked about decorum during the meetings, mentioning Rodriguez's sign. Rodriguez told Melendrez to “grow up” before gathering his belongings and leaving the meeting that was still in progress.
On May 17, the Enterprise published its investigative report showing no substantiation for Rodriguez’s statements in police reports.
The following day, Rodriguez apologized for what he said was crossing the line and then the next day said his apology had been misunderstood. He said he was only apologizing because he allowed himself “to stoop to Justus levels in council chambers.”
He turned his ire on Councilor Ken Hart after he said publicly he would vote to recall Rodriguez.
Hart is also leading a review of the city’s charter - the governing law for the city. Reforms would allow councilors to censure their colleagues and would require councilors to live in the city while serving in office. Rodriguez lives in a travel trailer outside Ontario but maintains he has a second home inside the city.
At Thursday’s city council meeting, Melendrez became the first councilor to publicly declare that he had signed the recall petition and asked Rodriguez to resign.
Rodriguez responded, “Have you even asked my side of the story? Nope.”
After Thursday’s meeting, Ontario Police Chief Steven Romero told the Enterprise that two current councilors and one former councilor had expressed concern for their safety after criticizing Rodriguez. Romero added that the sheathed knife that Rodriguez carries on his hip during meetings “has been a concern, even before this.”
News tip? Contact reporter Joey Cappelletti at [email protected] or 616-610-3093.
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