Grand Jury Indicts New Defendants in South County Corruption Probe

A Grand Jury returned indictments for a few school administrators and key players in the Sweetwater Unified School Board scandal on Friday, according to one of the defendant's attorneys.

The Grand Jury began meeting in early November in a major "pay-to-play" public corruption case.

Prosecutors say the school officials traded their votes on multi-million dollar construction contracts for gifts and other favors. 

A notice letter issued to former Sweetwater Superintendent Jesus Gandara states the Grand Jury has filed 22 counts of felony crimes, and eight misdemeanors against the defendant, who has already pleaded not guilty to some of the charges.

According to court documents, the felony crimes against Gandara issued this week include extortion, receiving a bribe, conspiracy to commit a crime, perjury by declaration and conspiracy to defraud another of property. 

Gandara's defense attorney, Paul Pfingst, said he was not surprised about the indictments.

"We were anticipating an indictment with the possibility of new defendants being added," Pfingst said.

Current board members Bertha Lopez and Jim Cartmill are among those named in the indictment and the San Ysidro schools superintendent Manuel Paul, two separate law enforcement sources told NBC 7 San Diego.

As NBC 7 Investigates first reported in August, Paul said in a June 20 deposition that he accepted $2,500 in cash from a contractor in 2010 in a Chula Vista parking lot. The cash exchange came to light as part of a lawsuit between a former contractor, Art Castañares, and the San Ysidro School District.

The Grand Jury meetings were held in lieu of a preliminary hearing, according to Allen Bloom, the defense attorney for Sweetwater trustee Arlie Ricasa, who has pleaded not guilty to prior complaints.

"In California, a defendant has a right to have an court evaluation of the evidence against them," Bloom said. "99 percent of the time that evaulation is done by a judge during a preliminary hearing who then says, 'Yes or No, We're going to trial.'" 

"The thing that concerns me whenever a district attorney goes the way of a Grand Jury is that the defense doesn’t have a chance to cross examine the witnesses or present their own witnesses or their side,"  Bloom added. "A grand jury will indict a sandwich. Our position has not waivered. Arlie is not guilty of any criminal offenses and she has always done the right thing in respect to her work." 

NBC 7 has reached out to the new defendants for comment, but none has provided an on-the-record statement.

The defendants are scheduled to be arraigned on Jan. 7, according to court documents.

Check back for updates on this developing story.

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