DA decries county’s ‘largest’ corruption case

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December 20, 2011 began as a mellow holiday with the morning sun working away at the winter chill. By dusk the landscape of South Bay politics and its two largest school systems was forever changed.

In a lightening strike that combined military precision and lockdown secrecy, a small battalion of officers armed with guns and search warrants swept through the homes of two former Southwestern College administrators, five current and former Sweetwater Union High School District officials, and a construction company executive who worked with both districts.

Arraigned so far are Sweetwater trustees Arlie Ricasa and Pearl Quiñones, former trustee Greg Sandoval, former superintendent Jesus Gandara, and Seville Construction executive Henry Amigable. They face up to seven years in prison on multiple felony counts of bribery, perjury, filing a false instrument, influencing an elected official and other charges. All pled not guilty. Facing possible charges are former Southwestern College administrators Nicholas Alioto and John Wilson. The home of Sweetwater trustee Bertha Lopez was also searched, but she has not been charged.

More people could be searched and arrested, according to San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.

At a press conference the week after the raids Dumanis decried the “culture of corruption” at Sweetwater and the “pay-for-play culture” at both districts.

“The widespread corruption we uncovered during our investigation of this case is outrageous and shameful,” Dumanis said. “For years, public officials regularly accepted what amounted to bribes in exchange for their votes on multi-million dollar construction projects. The corruption was nothing short of systemic. Today’s charges begin the process of holding those officials accountable for their actions on behalf of the taxpayers who footed the bill for lavish dinners, concert and theatre tickets, and much more.”

At the center of the charges are two voter-approved construction bond measures totaling more than $1 billion. Sweetwater’s $644 million Proposition O and Southwestern’s $389 million Proposition R attracted many of the state’s largest architectural and construction firms to compete for some of the county’s best-funded projects.

On Dec. 16 District Attorney investigators were granted search warrants by a superior court judge based on hundreds of pages of evidence DA personnel say prove that the educators and Amigable engaged in bribery and other illegal activities prior to and after the awarding of lucrative contracts. Affidavits requesting the search warrants were three inches thick and enumerated scores of examples of alleged criminal behavior.

Dumanis said there was a clear link between favorable treatment the school officials received from contractors and the contracts awarded.

“(School officials) also traded their votes for significant campaign donations,” she said. “When it came time for the school board trustees to document all of these gifts on their statements of economic interests, they simply lied. Taxpayers, parents and students deserve better. This is an ongoing investigation. Additional charges and additional defendants are possible.”

District Attorney spokespersons would not speculate about additional defendants and would neither confirm or deny that former SWC superintendent Raj K. Chopra and former SWC trustee Yolanda Salcido were targets of the investigation.

Evidence collected showed extensive communication between employees of the construction and architectural firms and the school officials, mostly on personal e-mail accounts between 2007 and 2010. E-mail seized by the DA showed meetings for evenings of drinking, expensive dinners, golf vacations, theatre tickets, NBA and NFL games. School officials also accepted large donations to pay for activities by their children.

Arlie Ricasa

Ricasa, SWC’s director of student development, is now on non-disciplinary leave pending the college’s internal investigation ordered by the new governing board majority last April. About 20 Ricasa family members and supporters filled the courtroom with “I Love Arlie” buttons at the arraignment.

Gilbane records show $1,280.22 in expenses for dinners and gifts for Ricasa. E-mails obtained by the DA suggesting she demanded campaign contributions, $1,800 to send her daughter to a Congressional Youth Leadership Conference, $2,500 for a table for a MAAC Project event, and others. Hector Romero, president of HAR Construction, reported contributing to Ricasa campaigns and donating to the Sweetwater Mariachi Foundation with the hope of additional contracts.

Ricasa’s defense attorney Allen Bloom said he has seen similar accusations and high profile press conferences in the recent past with the DA’s office that ended up in exonerations and apologies.

“I am hoping to have a press conference in the future to say that Arlie is not guilty,” he said. “The supporters are here because they love her.”

John Wilson

In December 2010 Alioto initiated a contract for “John Wilson Consulting” to assist in the management and supervision of all aspects of the SWC’s bond related capital construction program. In May, Seville invoiced SWC for Wilson as “Program Liaison” for 118 hours for a total of $19,470. Alioto approved the invoice and Wilson continued his employment with Seville through August 2010 for a total of $80,850. Seville donated heavily to incumbent SWC trustees seeking re-election, including at least $7,500 to Salcido, $2,400 to Terri Valladolid and $4,000 to trustee Jorge Dominguez.

Wilson’s search warrant alleges that he “greatly influenced” the SWC Governing Board’s vote regarding Seville and indicated he provided inside information prior to them being awarded the corner lot contract. His dating relationship with Salcido during this time “clearly appears to be a conflict.”

Nicholas Alioto

Alioto’s long list of pay-to-play activities with Seville and BCA Architects show evenings of drinking, lunches, dinners, golfing vacations (including a three-day trip to Pebble Beach), wine, birthday gifts and contributions to three SWC board members Alioto actively endorsed.

In June 2010, Alioto spent a weekend with Echo Pacific President Christopher Rowe, Amigable and Paul Bunton of BCA Architects at Silverado Resort and Spa in Napa. The trip was won by Echo Pacific in an auction at an SWC Educational Foundation gala that shut out the media and banned “unauthorized” cameras, including those of paid ticket holders.

Alioto resigned in February 2011 shortly after the new governing board majority of Norma Hernandez, Tim Nader and Nick Aguilar took over. Alioto received a $60,000 separation settlement, but no district-funded legal guarantees. His Chula Vista home was foreclosed in July and he currently lives in a Poway guest house on Rowe’s property.

Henry Amigable

Former Gilbane Construction employee Henry Amigable faces two felony counts involving bribery and influence peddling to gain multi-million dollar contracts from Sweetwater and Southwestern.

Amigable resigned from Gilbane in March 2009 and immediately went to work for Seville in April. Gilbane officials reported he resigned prior to being fired for problems with his work performance and abuse of client entertainment expenditures.

In 2007 Amigable’s dinners and junkets began involving SWC’s former governing board member Yolanda Salcido, her boyfriend Wilson and Alioto.

District Attorney documents claim that Amigable was key to Seville winning SWC’s Proposition R program management contract due to his close relationship with Salcido and Wilson. Wilson retired from SWC on December 30, 2009 after the SWC board accepted his recommendation of Seville as project manager in November.

Attorney Dan Greene said Amigable was doing what he was supposed to in a very competitive industry.

“He is an employee,” said Greene. “He is…trained by companies he has worked for that you need to make connections. You need to introduce people at meet-and-greets, that involves wining and dining. He is a person that is doing his job. If this were the private sector, I am sure that no one would be shocked. Wining and dining happens all the time.”

Greene said Amigable is not required to file reports on expenditures like public officials, but is responsible to report all his expenses to his employer and that “he does, and he did.”

When asked about bribery charges, Greene called it a “pretty big word that is interpreted broadly in the state of California.”

“Let me say this, what bribery requires under any law is corrupt intent,” said Green. “I think what we are going to see throughout this process is the Mr. Amigable had absolutely no corrupt intent. He is a man just like everyone else in this country that is trying to do his job.”

Greg Sandoval

Sandoval has ties with both districts and a long list of alleged bribes and favorable treatment. He is former SWC vice president of student affairs and served as interim president during the spring 2007 semester. Sandoval left the college in September 2008 under pressure from Chopra and allegations of sexual harassment. He recently disclosed documents that cleared him of those charges.

Sandoval reported $470 in gifts from Gilbane in 2007-08, but the DA alleged gifts in excess of $5,270, including $500 for his daughter to enter a beauty pageant.

Defense attorney Ricardo Gonzalez called the charges against Sandoval “overly sensationalized” and said his client is a man of high character.

“This is a man who has worked in the education world and gave his life to education, and continues to do so,” said Gonzalez.

Pearl Quiñones

Quiñones received $23,900 for her 2010 campaign from Seville as well as dinners, theatre and donations to the National Latino Education Fund in excess of $1,800. Quiñones listed $45 in theatre tickets and no reportable interests for 2008.

Her attorney Marc Carlos said her vote was not for sale. When asked if she would relinquish her seat on the board, Quiñones replied, “No, absolutely no.”

Jesus Gandara

Hired as Sweetwater superintendent in 2006, Gandara was fired in June 2011 for his credit card expenses, hiring a public relation firm without board consent and inviting district vendors to his daughter’s bridal shower, complete with a money tree. Sweetwater spent more than $520,000 in Proposition O money last year on public relations for its ongoing projects.

Records show Amigable treated Gandara and his family to expensive dinners and events before and after Gandara recommended Seville for Prop O contracts. Gandara received $6,124 in entertainment expenses paid by Gilbane and $1,000 for his daughter’s beauty pageant entry fees. HAR Construction reported purchasing dinners, lunches and drinks, and renting a $1,500 Halloween costume for Gandara in 2010.

Gandara’s attorney Paul Pfingst said most of the offenses are due to filling out forms incorrectly and plans to come back to court with evidence that supports his client.

“My client has been in education almost his entire adult life and before he came to San Diego he had an impeccable background,” said Pfingst. “Every place he has been he has received accolades.”

Enrique Raymundo contributed to this story

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