Former Southwestern College superintendent Raj K. Chopra appeared in San Diego County Superior Court today, his first public appearance since the district attorney began serving search warrants and issuing indictments in December 2011. Chopra arrived with a small group that included his driver, his son and his attorney, Michael Attanasio.
Chopra joined 11 other defendants in court this morning for the final steps of the arraignment proceedings in the trial now known as the South Bay Corruption Case. Each defendant or their attorney pleaded “not guilty” and denied all allegations.
Chopra missed a total of three court dates in January and February. His lawyers cited “depression” and “ill health” for his absences. Now a resident of Houston, Chopra said nothing to the media and spectators outside the courthouse.
Attanasio said that Chopra is ready to defend himself.
“Dr. Chopra looks forward to his day in court,” Attanasio said, “and looks forward to having the opportunity of presenting his side of the story.”
San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis has filed 232 criminal charges against 15 elected officials, school administrators and contractors in three school districts in what she has called the largest corruption case of its kind in San Diego County history. Charges include multiple counts of extortion, accepting bribes, perjury, conspiracy to defraud and conspiracy to commit a crime.
Defendants with SWC connections include Chopra, former trustees Yolanda Salcido and Jorge Dominguez, former vice president of business and finance Nicholas Alioto, former facilities director John Wilson, former interim superintendent Greg Sandoval and current director of EOPS Arlie Ricasa. Sandoval is currently an administrator at Moreno Valley College.
Sandoval and Ricasa were indicted for alleged criminal activities at the Sweetwater Union High School District. Sandoval is a former trustee and Ricasa is a current member of the board.
Also on trial are SUHSD trustees Jim Cartmill, Bertha Lopez and Pearl Quinones, former Sweetwater superintendent Jesus Gandara, former San Ysidro School District superintendent Manuel Paul, San Ysidro trustee Bertha Hernandez, Seville Construction Services Jeff Flores and financier Gary Cabello, who helped to finance municipal school bonds for both districts.
The San Ysidro board accepted Paul’s resignation last week. Paul, who has been on paid leave since January 15, tendered his resignation March 18. Carol Wallace, president of the San Ysidro Education Association, said the community was upset after learning about Paul’s admission to the district attorney last June of taking $2,500 in campaign cash from a contractor in a parking lot.
“Community members and teachers’groups put pressure on the board members to have Mr. Paul removed from the school (district),” Wallace said.
The board voted 3-2 to accept Paul’s resignation. Hernadez was one of the two.
Wallace said that Paul will still receive a substantial retirement package.
With Sandoval, Ricasa, Cartmill, Lopez, Quinones and Gandara all under indictment, the entire 2006-2010 SUHSD governing board and its former superintendent are on trial.
Alioto, a resident of Wisconsin, did not appear. Neither did Hernandez or Cabello. Flores appeared in a separate hearing.
Judge Ana España set the trial date for each of the 15 defendants to begin on Feb. 18, 2014. She will preside over the trial itself and readiness conferences on July 17 and Oct. 29, at which time she will likely hear and decide on pre-trial motions.
With the trial now taking place in the much larger courtroom of Department Five, España also heard the defendants’motion to seal grand jury testimony, which runs more than 4000 pages and 27 volumes.
Marc Carlos, attorney for Quinones, argued to keep the testimony sealed. In a written argument he claimed that the testimony would prejudice people of the South Bay against his client. He cited the high volume of media attention.
España said she believed that the potential jury pool is large enough to find “12 honest people” and the nature of the publicity surrounding the case has not been prejudicial, though it has been extensive. She also pointed out that much of the testimony is already public knowledge, being part of the initial search warrant affidavits submitted by the district attorney’s office.
She did agree, however, that some of the language in the testimony included prejudicial and inflammatory statements. She said some of it was “possibly inadmissible” and that some of it featured information regarding “unindicted co-conspirators.”
España denied the request to seal the grand jury testimony, but gave counsel until May 17 to submit proposals for redaction. This gives the attorneys a chance to identify and attempt to remove any problematic language. Attorneys from both sides will meet May 25 to hear the court’s decisions.
España also heard a pre-trial motion from Flores’ attorneys. Flores was involved with several construction projects on the SWC campus. He is the former employer of Henry Amigable, who has already pleaded guilty to a pair of misdemeanors during the first round of indictments.
Flores’ attorney, Anita Alexandra Kay, filed a motion to demur, a request to challenge the pleading and dismiss the case on the grounds that there is no legal basis to bring the case to trial. Kay argued that there is no legal precedent with this kind of bribery case that has been upheld. Kay also said that criminal counts against Flores do not specify the timelines and exact whereabouts of Flores.
“Based on that, the demurrer should be granted,” Kay said.
España, however, denied the motion for demurrer.
Frederic Ludwig III, deputy district attorney, said the judge’s decision ended one round of challenges by the defendants.
“By entering pleas, the right to demur has expired,” he said. “There will be no more demurs. There will be other challenges, but the demur is an animal unique to the pleading stage. That stuff is now done.”
Kay said she was not surprised by the judge’s ruling, but had some concerns.
“I still think that there are some issues with the way the indictment was filed,” she said.
Kay said that there are more motions to file, such as motion to dismiss and motion to set aside.
“There is still a lot to go through and we’re still at the infancy stage,” she said.