Four more former Southwestern College officials pleaded guilty to felonies and misdemeanors in the South Bay Corruption Case. Former administrators Nicholas Alioto and John Wilson along with former trustees Yolanda Salcido and Jorge Dominguez all likely avoided prison sentences by admitting guilt to one count. They joined former superintendent Raj. K. Chopra as former college officials guilty of crimes related to Proposition R funding.
College employees expressed disappointment over the lenient sentences approved by Judge Ana España and the San Diego County District Attorney, but also relief that the scandal and criminal proceedings may be finally winding down. Of the 15 defendants in the case, 12 had direct links to SWC either as officials, employees or contractors. Defendants originally faced 262 charges in what District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis called the “largest corruption case in the history of San Diego County.” As of press time, 11 of the cases have been settled through plea bargains.
Salcido was originally indicted on 14 counts, including extortion, perjury and accepting bribes. She pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for filing a false document. Her sentencing is April 22.
Also pleading guilty to criminal charges were former SWC contractors Paul Bunton, Henry Amigable, Jeff Flores and Gary Cabello. SWC EOPS Director Arlie Ricasa pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for crimes committed as a Sweetwater Union High School District trustee (see adjacent story). Charges against former SWC Interim President Greg Sandoval, a former SUHSD trustee, are pending. Sweetwater trustees Jim Cartmill, Pearl Quiñonez and Bertha Lopez still face charges, as does former Sweetwater superintendent Jesus Gandara.
All defendants had extensive affidavits detailing the charges against them. Most were more than 100 pages.
Chopra originally faced 13 charges — nine felonies — including perjury, receiving a bribe and conflict of interest. He pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of filing a false document. Chopra will not make any more court appearances, said his attorney Michael Attanasio. Chopra was fined and will perform community service, said Attanasio, but amounts are pending.
Former SWC facilities director Wilson pleaded guilty to one felony, as did former trustee Dominguez. Former vice president of business Alioto originally faced 12 counts, including bribery and perjury, but was allowed by the DA to plead guilty to just one felony. Alioto, Chopra and Wilson will be sentenced Jan. 7.
Former Seville Construction executive Amigable cooperated with prosecutors in exchange for a misdemeanor plea deal. An email he sent to SWC construction contractor Flores explaining how Dominguez could influence Chopra was described in an affidavit.
“Had a good dinner this evening with George (Jorge) Dominguez Board member at Southwestern College, his wife, Greg Sandoval and his wife and Angela and I,” wrote Amigable. “Greg encouraged George to support us to get the Program management assignment at Southwestern College. Right now the President of the college Raj Chopra has gotten real close to George. George believes he can influence Chopra right now because he needs his board support. He is going to set up a lunch with the President and let us pitch to him directly why they need to hire a PM (program manager) right away they want to go over John Wilson. In addition, George is going to try and influence who will be put on the selection committee.”
SWC officials were treated to expensive dinners, extravagant wine and cocktails, theater tickets, sporting events and other gifts in exchange for support and favors for Proposition R contractors and hopefuls. Some dinners approached $3,000 with wine and bar tabs of nearly $600.
Proposition R-related events have rattled the college since 2008 when the $389 million construction bond passed. Chopra punished college employees who spoke against passage of the measure and layed off at least one classified employee for not supporting the bond.
Chopra, Alioto and Salcido engaged in an assault on the student newspaper and its faculty when it began investigating irregularities in contracting, campaign contributions, extravagant gifts to college administrators, and secretive transactions at the college’s educational foundation in 2009. Alioto twice froze newspaper funding, refused to authorize payment of printing bills and publicly accused the adviser of financial mismanagement. Chopra physically assaulted a journalism student and the newspaper adviser, then offered the adviser “whatever it is you want” to influence his students to stop the investigations.
In 2010 Alioto ordered campus police to arrest three staff members of The Sun. When four armed officers approached the newspaper building the adviser locked them in his office and refused to turn them over. A two-and-a-half hour standoff ensued and a crowed gathered. Police left when Professor Robert Unger, a lawyer, convinced them that their action was illegal and they needed to leave.
Alioto also took control of the newspaper’s advertising revenue and failed to collect more than $11,000 over a period of 12 months. Journalism students billed the college for the funds in 2011, but the request was ignored.
In September 2010 Chopra directed former Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. Mark Meadows to order The Sun to cease publication until after the November 2010 governing board elections. Journalism students raised private funds and printed the September 2010 issue of The Sun in Los Angeles County. The issue broke the story of Alioto accepting luxurious vacations and other gifts from contractors and potential contractors. The Sun also published investigations about unreported campaign contributions to Salcido, Dominguez and current board president Terry Valladolid. Valladolid cooperated with the DA and has not been indicted.
Salcido and Dominguez were defeated at the polls by Norma Hernandez and Tim Nader. Days before the new board majority assumed office, Salcido, Dominguez, Valladolid and former trustee Jean Roesch voted to give Chopra a $100,000 severance package and he resigned before he could be fired. Alioto resigned in March 2012, followed by more than a dozen other Chopra allies in the administration, including the VP of human resources and the campus police chief.