Grand Jury Indicts New Defendants in South County Corruption Probe
A Grand Jury has voted to indict leading educators in the Sweetwater Union High School District. In an NBC 7 exclusive, Rory Devine explains the latest in the South County corruption probe and exactly who is being indicted.
More defendants have been snagged in the District Attorney's corruption probe into South Bay school construction projects.
The San Diego Superior Court docket for Monday lists a 2 p.m. appearance date for 15 defendants in the criminal probe. The corruption investigation has expanded in recent days to include new defendants from those originally charged with criminal complaints last year.
The defendants are current and former school officials, elected trustees, and contractors who did work at San Ysidro schools, the Sweetwater school district and Southwestern College. Many have already entered "not guilty" pleas on prior and identical complaints, including Gandara, Sandoval, Ricasa and Quiñones.
The Grand Jury began meeting in early November in a major "pay-to-play" public corruption case that now stretches across three South Bay school districts.
Prosecutors say the school officials traded their votes on multi-million dollar construction contracts for gifts and other favors.
Those who are scheduled to appear in court to be arraigned on indictments include:
Financier Gary Cabello, 53, who did work at both Southwestern College and Sweetwater. Cabello's home and former offices were raided in May 2012. As an underwriter, Cabello was tasked with calculating the size of the bond measure and the tax rate needed to finance the Sweetwater school district's wish list of building projects. His company, Alta Vista contributed $25,000 to the campaign to get the Sweetwater bond measure approved by voters, and then won a contract underwriting the bond. Cabello later worked for Cabrera Capital Markets, LLC., which had a contract with Southwestern College for financing on Proposition R bond funds. He could not be reached for comment, but his attorney said on Dec. 28 that she had not received any documentation that her client had been indicted by the Grand Jury.
Current Sweetwater trustee Jim Cartmill, the CEO of a nutritional supplement company. Cartmill received a $20,000 campaign contribution from a company doing work with the Sweetwater school district. The donation was allegedly procured by then-Superintendent Dr. Jesus Gandara while Cartmill and Gandara were on a trip to Mexico with others, according to court documents. Current Superintendent Dr. Ed Brand was an investor in Cartmill's company, according to bankruptcy documents with the Securities Exchange Commission. Messages left on Cartmill's voicemail since Dec. 28 have not been returned.
Jeff Flores, the president of Seville Construction Services, a construction firm that won a $2.7 million contract to do work under Southwestern College's Proposition R. Court records show Flores had an inside track working with Southwestern College officials on the project before it was officially bid. Some emails in the court affidavits indicate the contractor was allegedly involved in writing the request for proposals, or bidding documents for the college official. The court records also show he wrote the interview questions for the screening process. Flores' company has released repeated statements about the situation, including: "We believe SCS has operated and acted in good faith throughout our relationship with the (Southwestern College) district, including the termination of an employee a year ago for inappropriate actions that included violation of our corporate code of conduct. We believe the independent actions of individuals previously involved in the program are negatively affecting both organizations and the community.”
Former Sweetwater Superintendent Dr. Jesus Gandara. In 2006, Sweetwater trustees Jim Cartmill and Arlie Ricasa flew to Texas to interview Gandara for a position at the recommendation of the head-hunting firm Hazard, Young and Attea & Associates. His rocky tenure included borrowing bond money to pay off daily general fund expenses; inviting contractors to a "money tree" event for his daughter's bridal shower; hiding PR expenses from the board and a controversial exit strategy under investigation by state pension regulators. Prosecutors say he and several other board members spent night after night at expensive meals, sporting events, and trips, funded by contractors seeking work with the district. He has pleaded not guilty.
Sweetwater trustee Bertha Lopez whose home was raided December 2011. Lopez was an early whistleblower, alerting officials to the corruption in the South County school districts. She was re-elected in November to her seat.
San Ysidro Superintendent Manuel Paul is listed in court documents accepting meals from contractors and dining with Sweetwater Superintendent Gandara. He also admitted in a June deposition to accepting thousands in cash from a contractor in a Chula Vista restaurant parking lot.
Sweetwater trustee Pearl Quiñones, 59, was an educator in the San Ysidro School District. Quiñones was also re-elected to her seat in November with strong support from Mayor Bob Filner. The long-time National City resident is listed in court documents for dining at expensive meals and allegedly soliciting a paid position on a state commission in 2006 from a contractor working for the district. She has entered a "not guilty" plea.
Sweetwater trustee Arlie Ricasa, 48, works as an administrator at Southwestern College. Court papers show Ricasa contacted a Sweetwater construction contractor with her college email account to arrange a $3,900 campaign contribution for a state Assembly bid. The contractor, Rene Flores, pleaded "no contest" in April 2012 to a misdemeanor of aiding in the commission of a misdemeanor. Ricasa also asked Flores to fund her daughter's $1,800 trip to the National Young Leaders State Conference, and did not disclose the gift on state-mandated forms, the court records show. She has pleaded not guilty.
Former Sweetwater trustee Greg Sandoval, 58, also worked at Southwestern College as an administrator. He served on the Sweetwater school board for 16 years until 2010. According to court records Sandoval allegedly asked a business development executive working for a Sweetwater district contractor to pay $500 to enter Sandoval's daughter in a Miss South County pageant. The prosecutor's affidavit used to obtain a search warrant at Sandoval's home states Sandoval “had his hand out asking for gifts or donations so often, even employees from SGI remarked that he ‘has no shame.’” He has entered a "not guilty" plea.
Former Southwestern college official Nicholas Alioto, 47, resigned in 2011 amid controversy after the UT San Diego reported on a Napa Valley trip with a construction contractor who weeks later won $4 million work with the district. When the search warrants were served in December 2011, Alioto was found living in the guest house of the Poway home of that contractor. Alioto has entered a "not guilty" plea.
Former Southwestern Superintendent Raj Chopra was brought to Southwestern College in 2007 by the same head-hunting firm that found Gandara for the Sweetwater district. In the wake of state budget woes, Chopra enraged the South Bay community college employees with deep budget cuts. He also presided over the passing of Proposition R, a $389 million bond measure for school construction. There are only scarce mentions of Chopra in the D.A.'s affidavits served in 2011. However, an internal college probe found commingling of funds between the bond campaign and the college's general funds.
Former Southwestern trustee Jorge Dominguez. Dominguez said on Dec. 28 he was unaware he had been indicted by the Grand Jury. He added he declined an invitation to provide testimony during the Grand Jury proceedings, after advice of an attorney.
Former Southwestern trustee Yolanda Salcido. Salcido was a political rival of Dominguez. Her romantic involvement with Southwestern official John Wilson was the subject of a citizen's Grand Jury report several years ago.
Southwestern official John Wilson recommended Seville Construction Services receive the $2.7 million construction management contract in 2009, and then went to work for the company a couple months later.
Last year, three contractors who did work at Southwestern and Sweetwater pleaded to lesser misdemeanor charges and agreed to cooperate with investigators. They were: business development executive Henry Amigable; contractor Rene Flores, and an architect Paul Bunton.
Ed note: This post has been updated to reflect a cancellation in a 9 a.m. preliminary examination for four defendants. The appointment remains listed on Monday's court docket. A District Attorney spokesperson said there is no longer a 9 a.m. court hearing.