Former Southwestern College Superintendent Raj Kumar Chopra and former trustees Jorge Dominguez and Yolanda Salcido have joined four other current and former college leaders as defendants in a widening corruption case that now involves 15 people from three South Bay school districts.
A San Diego County grand jury handed down 232 criminal charges against elected officials and school contractors in what has become known as the “South Bay Corruption Scandal,” an investigation San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis called the largest of its kind in county history.
Fifteen defendants were summoned to Superior Court for arraignment Monday afternoon, six who had previously been charged and nine who were new to the indictments. The grand jury investigation resulted in indictments of administrators from Southwestern College, Sweetwater Union High School District and the San Ysidro School District.
Chopra, Salcido and Dominguez join Nicholas Alioto, John Wilson, Greg Sandoval and Arlie Ricasa as defendants with SWC connections. Chopra, Alioto, Salcido, Dominguez and Wilson were charged with crimes for actions related to SWC. Former interim superintendent Sandoval and current EOPS director Ricasa are accused of criminal activity as Sweetwater trustees. Sandoval is no longer on the SUHSD board. He currently works as an administrator at Moreno Valley Community College.
Each of the six defendants previously indicted and arraigned had additional criminal counts leveled against them. Alioto, former SWC vice president of business and finance, now has been charged with at least 11 counts. Wilson, the former director of facilities, is now charged with at least 16 counts. Ricasa is now facing at least 33 counts.
Sweetwater trustees Jim Cartmill and Bertha Lopez joined existing defendants Pearl Quiñones, Sandoval, Ricasa and Jesus Gandara. The new indictments now include all five members of the 2006-10 SUHSD board, as well as Gandara, the former superintendent. San Ysidro district superintendent Manuel Paul and board member Yolanda Hernandez were also charged. Rounding out the 15 are Jeff Flores, president of Seville Construction Services, and financier and underwriter Gary Cabello. Flores was involved with multiple projects on the SWC campus and is the former employer of Henry Amigable, who has already pleaded guilty to a pair of misdemeanors. Cabello helped finance municipal school bonds and calculate their impact on SWC and Sweetwater taxpayers.
Twelve of the 15 defendants appeared before Superior Court Judge Timothy R. Walsh. Hernandez failed to appear. There was no explanation for her absence. Chopra and Alioto also failed to appear. Defense lawyers said Chopra is in Texas suffering from ill health. Alioto is reportedly in Wisconsin, worried about further legal entanglements. Both Chopra and Alioto are required to appear in person January 30 or be subject to arrest warrants.
Though the arraignment process was scheduled for Monday, lawyers for the defendants were granted a postponement until January 30 to allow time for defendants and their legal teams to peruse nearly 50,000 pages of grand jury indictment transcripts, which are expected within a week.
All defendants were released on their own recognizance. Following are the charges against the defendants with SWC connections:
- Raj Kumar Chopra, at least 13 counts, including receiving a bribe, conflict of interest, filing a false instrument, perjury by declaration, and accepting gifts in excess of the legal amount.
- Nicholas Alioto, at least 11 counts, including conspiracy to defraud, conspiracy to commit a crime, perjury by declaration, receiving a bribe, wrongful influence, filing a false instrument and accepting gifts in excess of the legal amount.
- John Merrill Wilson, at least 16 counts, including conspiracy to defraud, conspiracy to commit a crime, receiving a bribe, filing a false instrument, wrongful influence, conflict of interest and accepting gifts in excess of the legal amount.
- Yolanda Salcido, at least 13 counts, including perjury by declaration, filing a false instrument, conflict of interest, receiving a bribe, accepting a bribe by a member of the legislature, wrongful influence and accepting gifts in excess of the legal amount.
- Jorge Dominguez, at least 15 counts, including conspiracy to defraud, conspiracy to commit a crime, perjury by declaration, filing a false statement, conflict of interest, accepting a bribe by a member of the legislature, wrongful influence and accepting gifts in excess of the legal amount.
- Arlie Ricasa, at least 33 counts, including extortion, conspiracy to commit a crime, receiving a bribe, filing a false instrument, accepting a bribe by a member of the legislature, conflict of interest, wrongful influence, perjury by declaration and accepting gifts in excess of the legal amount.
- Greg Sandoval, at least 33 counts, including extortion, conspiracy to commit a crime, conspiracy to defraud, accepting a bribe by a member of the legislature, receiving a bribe, filing a false instrument, perjury by declaration, conflict of interest, wrongful influence and accepting gifts in excess of the legal amount.
Sitting SWC trustee Terri Valladolid, who was on the board with Salcido and Dominquez, and was a staunch supporter of Chopra and Alioto, has not been charged. She has joined the current board majority, which has been cooperating with the district attorney’s investigation. Jean Roesch, the fourth member of the 4-1 pro-Chopra majority of 2006-10, has also not been charged. Roesch did not run for re-election in 2012 and is off the board.
SWC Chief Public Information Officer Lillian Leopold issued a statement after the hearing that reaffirmed the college’s sweeping policy and procedural changes over the past two years to end the “pay-for-play” culture. A new governing board majority restored the college’s accreditation and swept out more than a dozen administrators, including Alioto.
“Southwestern College has taken great strides to improve its business practices and increase the level of transparency throughout the college district,” said board president Humberto Peraza. “We have put procedures in place to ensure this does not happen again.”
Last March, new college president Dr. Melinda Nish and the board cancelled all Proposition R construction contracts involving construction firms with representatives under indictment.