The former superintendent of San Ysidro schools has entered a guilty plea in federal court to the misdemeanor charge of deprivation of benefits for political contributions. In other words, he admitted to extracting political contributions from a prospective contractor by threatening to withhold work.
Manuel Paul, 63, admitted in his plea agreement that he asked contractor Loreto Romero to make a $3,600 campaign contribution to three members of the San Ysidro board, who were running for re-election in the 2010 campaign cycle.
The maximum penalty for the federal charge is one year in prison and a $100,000 fine. The plea deal brings the two-year federal probe to an end.
NBC7 Investigates was first to report about a suspicious cash drop-off to Paul in the parking lot of a Chula Vista steakhouse made in 2010.
The former superintendent admitted in his plea agreement that he made it clear to Romero that the contractor's inclusion on a list of potential contractors for future building projects under the district's bond program was contingent on Romero making the payment.
FBI Special Agent in Charge, Daphne Hearn, said: "We demand the best from our public servants and expect them to deal honestly and fairly when conducting the public's business. Mr. Paul did not do that, and will now be held accountable for his actions."
Paul's criminal defense attorney said he had no information regarding whether Paul would be returning his severance package, as he promised to do in April 2013, when he said he would return $186,000 if he was convicted of any crime. Paul could not be reached for comment.
In the plea deal accepted in federal court this morning, Paul stated that he accepted $2,500 cash in a parking lot from Romero, and then took the money to a Tijuana print shop for campaign signs for then-school trustees Yolanda Hernandez, Jason Wells and Jean Romero. Two years later, he submitted receipts totalling $1,400 for the campaign signs.
In addition to Paul's plea agreement, the former educator who worked for the district for 38 years, agreed to pay a $5,000 fine to the state political watchdog agency for accepting a gift in excess of the annual gift limit from a single source.
Paul previously pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge in a separate prosecution by the San Diego County District Attorney's office, related to filing paperwork under the penalty of perjury that did not include all gifts he received from contractors.
The separate federal probe began in 2012 when Paul's cash demand came to light.
"Today’s guilty plea is a stark reminder that illegal money in our elections – regardless of the amount – is a threat to our democratic form of government and will be treated as such by our office. All citizens of our district have the right to elections free from dollars obtained through coercion,” said U.S. Attorney Laura E. Duffy in a press release today.
Partly in response to Paul's actions, a bill banning administrators from seeking campaign money for the elected officials they serve is set to be signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown.
“Top-level administrators who are involved in the making of contracts with district contractors, vendors and employee unions should not be raising campaign cash for the school and college board members, especially when those administrators are employed at the pleasure of those board members,” said the bill's author Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego.
As a condition to the plea agreement, both the defendant and the prosecutors agreed to the recommended sentence of three-years probation and no fine, but a judge is under no obligation to adhere to that recommendation, according to the U.S. Attorney's office.
Paul is scheduled to appear for sentencing on Nov. 18.