SAN DIEGO – A county grand jury handed down indictments charging officials from three South Bay school districts with accepting gifts in return for favorable votes on contracts, San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis announced Monday.
Among the 15 defendants charged in two indictments are current and former officials from the Sweetwater Union High School and San Ysidro schools districts and the Southwestern Community College District.
Most of the defendants appeared in court Monday and had their arraignment put off until Jan. 30.
“The indictment was presented to the defense lawyers today and we haven’t had a chance to read it and it’s very long,” said Paul Pfingst, attorney for one of the defendants, former Sweetwater Union High School District Superintendent Jesus Gandara. “Before the defendants entered a plea of guilty or not guilty, we wanted to have the opportunity to read the indictment.”
Gandara, along with former trustees Greg Sandoval and current board members Arlie Ricasa and Pearl Quinonez are charged with conspiracy, bribery, perjury and other counts in connection with the alleged “pay for play” scheme.
In March of last year, construction company executive Henry Amigable admitted a misdemeanor charge that he provided gifts, meals and tickets for entertainment events to district officials to influence the school board’s decisions on construction contracts. He is cooperating with prosecutors.
Attorneys for the other defendants were hoping to cross-examine Amigable at a preliminary hearing, but that won’t happen now that there’s been an indictment, Pfingst said.
He said attorneys are considering filing a legal challenge to the charges.
Quinonez, who was re-elected amidst the charges, said she feels good about the situation “because I didn’t do anything wrong.”
When the charges were first announced last January, Dumanis alleged that between 2008 and 2011, the defendants frequented San Diego-area restaurants, spending hundreds of dollars on food and drinks, sometimes more than $1,000 per outing. They were also given Los Angeles Lakers playoff tickets, Rose Bowl tickets and a trip to Napa Valley, Dumanis said.
For years, the public officials regularly accepted what amounted to bribes in exchange for their votes on multimillion-dollar construction projects, Dumanis alleged.
Also charged in the indictments handed down last month were current Sweetwater board members James Cartmill and Bertha Lopez as well as San Ysidro School District Superintendent Manuel Paul.
Former Southwestern College Superintendent and President Raj Chopra, who was allegedly involved with a plan in 2009 to obscure a gift from a developer who was seeking a contract, according to court documents.