Witness: Jewelry Bought for School Officials' Wives

A key prosecution witness in the corruption case involving more than a dozen current and former school officials claims he not only treated defendants to meals and entertainment, but that he also purchased jewelry for some of the officials and their wives.

The testimony was found in the Grand Jury transcripts released in the bribery and perjury case of current and former officials from Sweetwater, San Ysidro and Southwestern College school districts.

More than a dozen people were indicted in December in a major "pay-to-play" public corruption case. Prosecutors allege school officials traded votes on multimillion dollar construction contracts in exchange gifts and other favors. All the defendants have entered "not guilty" pleas and their trial is set to begin in February 2014.

Construction executive Henry Amigable testified that on a couple of occasions while dining out with board members and school officials at Baci’s restaurant, he purchased jewelry and offered it to his prospective clients’ wives.

Tony D’Amato, the owner of Baci’s, a Bay Park restaurant serving Sicilian-based cuisine, said Tuesday that his wife makes jewelry pieces that are sometimes sold to restaurant patrons.

He said the jewelry is made of precious stones but the pieces are not very expensive, “about $50 for a bracelet or $65 for earrings, ”he said.

Dan Greene, Amigable’s attorney, said former Sweetwater Superintendent Jesus Gandara, Ph.D, returned the jewelry because he didn’t feel comfortable keeping it, but former Sweetwater trustee Greg Sandoval kept the jewelry for his wife.

Sandoval’s defense attorney did not return three requests for comment.

Baci’s was a favored dining establishment among South County elected leaders and Amigable.

Amigable’s expense reports to Gilbane Building Co. show that he brought various Sweetwater officials to the family-owned restaurant at least 18 times, spending more than $8,000 on the officials in the months leading up to Gilbane being
unanimously awarded a three-year $7.5 million contract for program management on the $644 million Proposition O bond program.

Defense attorney Paul Pfingst, who represents Gandara, said he wasn’t surprised by the extra exchange of goods at the dinners because he has long questioned how the meal tabs became so high.

“Dr. Gandara has no personal knowledge of any exchange of jewelry, but we have always thought the bill was padded and we never knew why,” Pfingst said. He denied that his client ever accepted any jewelry at the meals.

Both Amigable and D’Amato said the extra jewelry items were not included on the dinner tabs.

“He (Amigable) purchased jewelry, and he didn’t think it was on that same check,” Greene said of his client. “It wasn’t that much money and so he wasn’t even sure he expensed it.”

Receipts from Baci’s don’t clarify whether jewelry or any other commerce besides food and wine were included in the tab because many receipts are not itemized.

One $1,203 bill in Amigable’s expense reports is the credit card signature receipt only.

In another, three items are documented – Spumon for $.95; Chocolate Tort for $7.95 and Canoli for $7.95 – but the tab totals $550.71.

The other line items are just asterisks.

In another instance, entrees such as “New York Steak” ($27.95) and “Grilled Calamari Salad” ($11.95) are itemized but the Dec. 4, 2007 date on the receipt is scratched out and replaced with a handwritten date that indicates the meal actually took place on March 14, 2007.

The billing includes a handwritten note from the owner: “Sorry for the incovenience (sic). Computer due to daylight saving time went crazy. Sorry. Thanks. Tony D’Amato. Baci.

A spokeswoman for the District Attorney said her office could not comment on the ongoing case.

A website for Baci’s Ristorante describes the atmosphere at the establishment as private, elegant, but “with a casual Southern California flair.”

“Specialties include steaks, fresh fish, seafood, veal, lamb, pork, poultry, pastas, salads and house-made desserts. Baci welcomes guests’ special requests,” the website states.

A business tax representative with the City of San Diego said the only activity listed on Baci’s business license was the restaurant business, and selling jewelry was not included in approved activities at the location. The restaurant is not under investigation by the District Attorney's office.

Amigable, 48, pleaded guilty in March 2012 to a misdemeanor charge of offering a thing of value to a member of a school board, agreeing to cooperate with the prosecution in exchange for a lesser charge. He had originally faced felony bribery charges.

Amigable worked for Gilbane Building Co. and then Seville Construction Services, and then Echo Pacific. All three construction companies were chosen to manage million-dollar construction projects at three South County school districts: Sweetwater Union High School District, Southwestern College and San Ysidro School District.

School leaders at all three districts are facing corruption charges, accused of dining out at many other high-end restaurants, and accepting entertainment and other gifts in exchange for their votes on the contracts.

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