Court Docs Shed Light on South County Schools Construction Projects

An architect testifies that campaign contribution requests were more prevalent in the South Bay “than in any other part of the state”

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    NEWSLETTERS

    NBC 7 San Diego
    More than a dozen school officials from the Sweetwater, San Ysidro and Southwestern College school districts appeared in court in April to face charges including bribery and perjury.

    Grand Jury testimony released Tuesday describes the tight-knit relationships between contractors, administrators and board members at three South County school districts and sheds light on how lucrative contracts were awarded under bond programs.

    In the documents, one architect testifies that campaign contribution requests were more prevalent in the South Bay “than in any other part of the state.”

    The transcripts led to 232 felony and misdemeanor criminal charges against 15 defendants in an investigation into school construction projects. Each defendant has entered a not guilty plea.

    More than 4,000 pages were ordered unsealed Tuesday by Superior Court Judge Ana Espana.

    The evidence attempts to chronologically document meals, contributions, and the awarding of contracts since million-dollar bond measures were passed at Sweetwater and Southwestern in 2006 and 2008. It jumps between the two districts as it moves in time-line order with an occasional mention of the San Ysidro school district.

    In 2012, a business development executive, an architect, and a program manager all pleaded guilty to lesser misdemeanor charges in exchange for their cooperation in the criminal probe.

    Architect Paul Bunton testified that he paid for expensive meals at Pa Pazzo Restaurant, Baci's, Oceanaire, and Donovan's - all in an effort to build business relationships with decision makers at Southwestern College and the Sweetwater school district, according to the transcripts.

    Bunton, 54, pleaded guilty in March 2012 to aiding in the commission of a misdemeanor because the school officials did not list the meals and gifts on state-mandated reporting forms.

    Describing an expensive 2008 outing at Baci's, Bunton testified he was unable to recall who paid for the meal, but that he was "quite certain no board member paid for the dinner," according to the transcripts.

    "Because I have never attended any dinner with this group that any board member did pay for dinner," he said, according to the Grand Jury transcripts.

    He also sprang for expensive golf trips to Pebble Beach and vacations in Napa Valley for a top administrator at the community college where he won a $5.3 million design and architecture contract in April 2010, according to the transcripts.

    Bunton testified he helped fund-raise and delivered campaign contributions to board members at Sweetwater where he did $30 million worth of work, and that he hosted a $12,000 event for local politicos at the now-closed Frida's restaurant in Chula Vista to showcase his design for Southwestern's undeveloped "Corner Lot."

    He said requests for campaign contributions were "very prevalent in the South Bay; much more than in any other part of the state," according to the transcripts.

    In one email exchange he had in May 2010 with long-time Sweetwater trustee Pearl Quinones, Bunton wrote:
    "Just letting you know that I will be at the fundraiser this coming week and bringing the consultants with checks."

    Bunton said he complied with the regular requests for campaign contributions to continue building relationships the trustees, not because of an expectation of doing work.

    "Nobody had a gun to my head saying I needed to do this," Bunton said. "But, you know, there was a certain amount of potential if you didn't contribute, you may not even have a chance to work there."

    He said the requests for campaign contribution were sometimes made at the behest of former Sweetwater Superintendent Jesus Gandara, Ph.D.:

    "Dr. Gandara suggested that we meet and bring checks to board members," he said.

    Bunton testified he has since revised his business practices by specifically instructing a public official of the amount of reportable expenditure he has made anytime he entertains. He also sends correspondence at the end of the year letting an official know exactly how much he's spent on meals and other entertainment for the official during the course of the year.

    "I would rather not sit here again," he told Deputy District Attorney Leon Schorr during the testimony.

    Marc Carlos, the defense attorney for Quinones, has argued the grand jury transcripts are one-sided, and fail to paint the whole picture.

    "I guarantee you this testimony will be put into context once it is subject to scathing cross-examination," he said during a hearing about whether the transcripts should be released.

    Some of the transcripts were unavailable to the media Tuesday while they are being edited for information that may be inadmissible in court.

    Readiness conferences for the case against all 15 defendants were set for July and October. A jury trial date was set for February 18, 2014.