The District Attorney’s sweeping criminal prosecution of South Bay administrators, elected officials, educators and contractors is nearly over with the ending scope of the case tallying: 11 misdemeanor pleas; three felony guilty pleas; and guilty pleas for six more felony charges that were reduced by a judge to misdemeanors upon sentencing.
With the trial just days away, two of the last three defendants who had not yet taken a plea deal appeared in court Thursday to accept misdemeanor charges for accepting more than the legal limit in gifts.
Current Sweetwater trustees Bertha Lopez and Jim Cartmill will be allowed to continue serving on the Sweetwater school board, despite their confession in court to accepting more gifts than the legal limit and not properly documenting gifts on state-mandated forms, according to San Diego Superior Court Judge Ana Espana.
During the course of the case, which began as an investigation about three years ago, 18 were charged with more than 232 felony and misdemeanor criminal charges by the San Diego County District Attorney’s office.
Prior to a criminal Grand Jury convening in late 2012, three contractors, who did construction work in the South Bay, entered guilty pleas to lesser misdemeanor charges in exchange for their cooperation and testimony in the criminal Grand Jury proceedings.
The majority of the 18 total defendants entered guilty pleas to various charges stemming from the allegation that the officials traded their votes on multi-million dollar construction contracts and bond deals for lavish meals and gifts. But many of the final conviction charges amounted mostly to paperwork issues, typically handled by the Fair Political Practices Commission – a state agency that issues fines for such matters.
“There has been no impact whatsoever,” said Marc Carlos, one of the defense attorney in the case. “It’s destroyed people’s lives and careers for conduct which should have been dealt with on an administrative level.”
But some say the reach of what District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis described as “the largest public corruption case our office has ever prosecuted — systematic and pervasive,” has extended outside of the courtroom.
Southwestern College and Sweetwater Union High School District have each implemented campaign contribution limits hoping to cap the political influence of contractors seeking work with the district. Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) has proposed state legislation that would prevent school and college district superintendents and administrators from raising campaign cash for the board members they serve.
As the case got more media attention in May 2012, school officials across the state rushed to amend their state-mandated form 700’s – paperwork meant to track gifts to public officials so the community can monitor the influence those gifts might bring.
“My only hope is that people will realize that they should follow the rules,” said Bill Richter, a long-time Chula Vista resident, when asked if anything has changed in the South Bay as a result of the case.
Are officials more carefully filling out their forms?
“I think they better be,” said community member John Brickley “Because, we’re checking…. But, at the same time, I think the idea is that maybe it’s time that the construction companies start thinking about what they’re doing to bring these issues to the public.”
Business Development Executive Henry Amigable, 49, a contractor who prosecutors describe as at the center of a ‘pay to play’ culture, was charged with felony bribery in January 2012. In March 2012, he pleaded guilty to a lesser misdemeanor violation of the state Education Code, offering something of value to a school board member, and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. In San Diego Superior Court, Amigable received only probation for a three-year term, starting in March 2013.
Rene Flores Sr.
President of Seville Group Inc., Rene Flores Sr., was hired in 2007 to oversee $644 million of construction bond money in the Sweetwater district. In April 2012, he entered a plea of “no contest” to a misdemeanor charge of aiding in the commission of a misdemeanor -- stemming from the failure of public officials to disclose meals he bought them on state-mandated forms.
Architect Paul Bunton, 55, entered a guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge of aiding in the commission of a misdemeanor – also stemming from the failure of public officials to disclose meals he bought them on state-mandated forms. Bunton has not yet been sentenced. The item is trailing in the San Diego Superior Court Department 50.
Financier Gary Cabello, 54, underwrote bonds at both Southwestern College and Sweetwater. He pleaded guilty to two felony conspiracy charges on October 25, 2013. In April 2014, he was sentenced to a three-year probation period, nearly $8,000 in fines and community service. Cabello’s felony charges were reduced to misdemeanors in exchange for his cooperation with the prosecution.
Dr. Jesus Gandara
Former Superintendent Dr. Jesus Gandara served as top administrator at Sweetwater between 2006 and 2011. He pleaded guilty to one felony charge of conspiring to accept gifts in excess of the legal limit, and one misdemeanor charge related to not reporting the full amount of gifts he received on state-mandated forms.
Gandara is set to be sentenced in June. The maximum punishment he faces is three years in state prison, but it is unlikely he will serve time.
Current San Ysidro school trustee Yolanda Hernandez pleaded guilty in October 2013 to one misdemeanor perjury charge. She is scheduled to be sentenced on April 29, and has not stepped down as a San Ysidro school trustee.
Former Sweetwater trustee Pearl Quiñones, 61, entered a guilty plea March 18 to one felony count of conspiracy to commit a crime and one misdemeanor related to not filling out paperwork concerning gifts. She is scheduled to be sentenced on April 28.
As a result of the felony plea deal, Quiñones had to step down from her position on the Sweetwater school board, according to the district’s current superintendent.
Former Sweetwater trustee Arlie Ricasa, 50, currently works as an administrator at Southwestern College. She entered a guilty plea in December to one misdemeanor charge of accepting gifts in excess of state limits.
She was sentenced on April 9 to probation and community service and fined $4,500. She also resigned her position with the Sweetwater school board and was demoted at Southwestern College, her attorney told the court.
Gregory Sandoval, 60, a former Sweetwater trustee who served on the board for many years and was also a Southwestern College administrator, pleaded guilty to a felony conspiracy charge on April 4. He also took a misdemeanor charge of failing to report gifts on disclosure forms required under state law.
Sandoval told the court he accepted $2,770 in gifts in 2008 from contractor Henry Amigable, who pleaded guilty early in the case and cooperated with prosecutors. Sandoval’s attorney said he will ask Judge Ana Espana to reduce the felony charges to a misdemeanor at Sandoval's sentencing hearing June 20.
Meanwhile, Sandoval is still collecting a $151,811 annual paycheck from the Riverside Community College District, according to spokesperson Robert Schmidt.
Southwestern College’s former vice-president, Nicholos Alioto, 48, pleaded guilty to one felony aiding in the commission of a crime in December.
Alioto’s felony guilty plea was reduced to a misdemeanor upon sentencing. He received nearly $8,000 in fines and was ordered to perform 160 hours of community service.
Former Southwestern Superintendent Raj Chopra entered a guilty plea to a misdemeanor in October.
Former Southwestern trustee Jorge Dominguez pleaded guilty to one felony count in January.
His felony charge was reduced to a misdemeanor at an April 23 sentencing and he received nearly $5,000 in fines, community service and probation for three years.
Former Southwestern College trustee Yolanda Salcido, 55, pleaded guilty in January to one misdemeanor count of filing a false instrument.
She was sentenced April 23 to probation for three years, about $5,000 in fines, and community service.
Former Southwestern College official John Wilson pleaded in December to a felony charge of being an accessory to a crime.
His charge was reduced to a misdemeanor during his January sentencing hearing. He was sentenced to three-year’s probation and ordered to pay almost $8,000 in fines and complete 20 days of public works service.
The last remaining defendant is Jeff Flores, a former construction executive at Seville Construction Services, which did work at Southwestern College. His case is not moving forward at this time because of medical issues.
He has not pleaded guilty to any crime, and faces multiple felony and misdemeanor corruption-related charges.
About Thursday's proceedings, the Sweetwater school district released the following statement:
“While this is a personal legal matter and the district will not comment on the specifics of the case, the district is pleased that these legal matters have come to a conclusion. We hope that at this time the entire district and community will continue to focus on the achievement of students in the district.
With the nature of the plea deals made, the Sweetwater District’s legal counsel will be reviewing the decisions over the next several days to ensure that the district can move forward appropriately in terms of its current and future governance.”
A handful of defendants are still scheduled to be sentenced.