Residents of the Southwestern Community College District who expected to see former SWC president Raj K. Chopra and former vice president Nicholas Alioto arraigned in court on Wednesday were sorely disappointed.
For the second time in a month, Chopra failed to appear in a San Diego Superior Courtroom for his arraignment hearing. Defense lawyers again cited Chopra’s health as the reason for his absence. Chopra is claiming “severe depression.”
Alioto, summoned from Wisconsin, did appear, along with the 13 other defendants of the “South Bay Corruption Scandal,” an investigation San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis called the worst of its kind in county history.
Also present were former SWC trustees Yolanda Salcido and Jorge Dominguez, EOPS director Arlie Ricasa, former administrator John Wilson, and former interim president Greg Sandoval; Sweetwater trustees Pearl Quiñones, Bertha Lopez, and Jim Cartmill; former Sweetwater superintendent Jesus Gandara; San Ysidro School District Superintendent
Manuel Paul; San Ysidro trustee Yolanda Hernandez; financier Gary Cabello; and Jeff Flores, the president of Seville Construction Services. Hernandez, who failed to appear on Jan. 9, has already been arraigned.
But it was more than just Chopra’s absence that caused a furor. It was the location and size of the courtroom used for the hearing. Arraignment proceedings began Jan. 9 in San Diego’s Central Courthouse in front of Judge Timothy Walsh. Neither Chopra, Alioto nor Hernandez were present. Walsh ordered the arraignment proceedings to continue on Jan. 30. But following a surprising relocation of the trial from the central court to the Chula Vista Superior Courthouse, the arraignment proceedings were pushed back a second time.
This proved a logistical problem, because with the exceptions of defense attorneys and officers of the court, only 30 people were allowed in the courtroom. This included members of the public and press, and the defendants themselves. Dozens of members of the public were turned away.
No one seemed quite certain what was going on yet. Vikas Bajaj, attorney for Dominguez, said he believes the district attorney was responsible for the confusion and change of venues. Bajaj will be filing a demurrer, which challenges the charges against his client on the merit that there is no probable cause to go forth with the charges.
“The interesting thing is that none of the defendants received any proper notice from the district attorney’s office,” he said. “No one knows why.”
A spokesman for the D.A.’s office, however, said the decision to move the arraignment from San Diego to Chula Vista was “made by the presiding judge.” The spokesman also said that Dumanis’s office had filed motions to relocate the case to its original location at the central courthouse, but also to find out who ordered the relocation and why.
On Feb. 5, Superior Court Judge Michael Smyth will hear arguments and determine the location of the twice-delayed arraignment hearings, which are scheduled to continue on Feb. 15.
Alioto and Gandara will not be in court that day. Both were granted waivers to not appear. Because Alioto already traveled from Wisconsin to Chula Vista, he will not have to return on Feb. 15.
In a unanimous move, defense attorneys informed Sontag of their intention to file a motion to seal the findings of the Grand Jury transcripts until they are investigated further. Bajaj said this is a necessary step.
“When there’s a significant disagreement regarding the facts that may be presented, it is imperative to ensure a clean and unbiased jury pool,” he said. “[When there are] live witnesses who gave testimony that became the foundation of criminal charges, we may in fact contaminate the pool.”
He said that Dominguez had readied himself for any coming trial.
“We want to have a fair jury,” Bajaj said.
Following the truncated hearing, Cabello went before Sontag to have his lawyer withdraw, and to request a court-appointed lawyer. Cabello now joins Alioto and Salcido in accepting taxpayer-funded legal aid.