Former San Ysidro Superintendent Manuel Paul was sentenced to two months in jail Tuesday for threatening to withhold work from a contractor unless he gave Paul political contributions.
The former superintendent, who resigned in 2013 amid the school district’s pay-to-play scandal, told the court he is deeply sorry that he caused humiliation to the community. He pleaded guilty last August to a misdemeanor charge of deprivation of benefits for political contributions.
"I'm very sorry for what I did," Paul told the court prior to the sentencing. "I'm very sorry that I have offended and humiliated, if I did I humiliate and offend anybody in the San Ysidro school district and the community of San Ysidro where I have spent my entire professional career. Since my childhood, I lived there and worked there 57 years. If I did anything to cause any humiliation to any of the students or my community, I am deeply sorry."
After his jail time, Paul will undergo community service as part of his one year of supervised release. He will also pay a $5,000 fine.
Magistrate Judge William Gallo said Paul used his considerable influence and authority to shape elections in a way that "runs afoul of everything a democratic society believes in."
In his plea agreement, Paul admitted to asking contractor Loreto Romero to make a $3,600 campaign contribution to three members of the San Ysidro school board, each of whom was running for re-election in 2010.
Paul made it clear to Romero that if he made the payment, he would be included on a list of potential contractors for future school building projects, funded by the district’s bond program.
“It is not a little thing because what happened is: He did it just because he could,” said former teacher Josie Hamada. “And that’s an attitude that we can’t, as educators, allow.”
NBC 7 Investigates' reporting helped prompt a federal probe into Paul’s actions. We were the first to report that Paul admitted to accepting $2,500 in cash from Romero while at a Chula Vista steakhouse’s parking lot in 2010.
Part of the defense's arguments Tuesday asserted that much of what the media reported was unverified. Gallo did not fully accept the argument, overruling most of the defense's objections.
The judge told the defendant it was extremely difficult to consider Paul's long and honorable career against what he called a "wrong turn" made by the ex-superintendent in accepting the cash.
"By all accounts, you've had an outstanding career in San Ysidro from the very beginning," Gallo told Paul before handing down his sentence. "You are well-respected, well-regarded individual who progressed up through the ranks to achieve the highest level of work as superintendent .... People look up to you. They respect you, and expected they could trust your judgment and decisions that you made would be in the best interest of the school district."
But, the federal court judge said he had to balance those considerations against a fair sentence for the crime, as well as the need to send a message to others in the position of authority and to the community.
"They are disappointed in you. You let them down. You abused the trust that they had in you. They are rightfully, rightfully outraged," he said.
Gallo also said the consequence of that action was the disastrous state of the district's finances.
"I think that the court put way too much weight on that and the idea that somehow Mr. Paul is bankrupting the San Ysidro district is ridiculous," said Paul's attorney Daniel Rodriguez, after the hearing. "That is not what has placed them in financial trouble, and to lay that on him was very unfair."
Last year, a jury awarded a contractor $12 million in a civil case centered on the wrongful termination of a solar panel agreement. The plaintiffs' initial arguments focused on the parking-lot cash exchange as proof of a corrupt culture in the small South Bay school district. The civil jury never heard of that cash drop-off, but Paul was unable to testify in the school district's defense because of his legal concerns about the pending criminal charges.
Rodriguez told NBC7 that Paul's name was eventually dropped from the civil lawsuit, which began in 2012, and he argued in court that factor not be considered in the judge's sentencing.
"I think it's right for me to consider the consequences," Gallo told the defendant. "You can't look at these things in a vacuum. By your conduct and your actions, you really have placed the school district, a small school district with limited financial resources, in financial jeopardy."
Also, Paul said in 2013 that he would return his $186,000 severance package to the district if he was found guilty, but it's unclear if he still plans to do that. He declined to comment at the sentencing hearing Tuesday.
In a separate prosecution through the district attorney's office, Paul previously pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge related to filing paperwork, under penalty of perjury, that did not include all gifts he received from contractors.
Paul is one of 18 South Bay administrators, elected officials, educators and contractors implicated in a widespread corruption case prosecuted by the district attorney. By last April, the majority of the defendants had entered guilty pleas to various charges.
NBC 7's Wendy Fry was in the courtroom for Paul's sentencing, and she tweeted all the developments as they were unfolding.