In response to an ongoing criminal investigation in the South Bay involving Sweetwater district officials, Southwestern College is making some changes.
At its regular meeting last week, the college’s governing board directed staff to immediately suspend existing contracts with Seville Construction Services and BCA Architecture Inc. totaling $5.8 million.
The decision means construction on the campus’s corner lot, which was slated to be completed in 2013, has stopped completely. The project was funded by Prop. R, a $389-million bond measure approved by voters in 2008.
Last month, several current and former district officials and a contractor had their homes raided by district attorney investigators.
In light of affidavits produced by the DA’s Office, five of them were served with multiple felony charges and misdemeanors including perjury, filing a false document, wrongful influence of a public official and bribery.
The defendants include contractor Henry Amigable, sitting board members Pearl Quinones and Arlie Ricasa, former district superintendent Jesus Gandara and former board member Greg Sandoval.
Ricasa, who is also the director of student development and health services for the college, was placed on paid administrative leave last week.
San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said the defendants were involved in a pay-for-play culture and characterized the public corruption case as the largest of its kind in San Diego County.
In a letter written to the community Jan. 7, governing board president Norma Hernandez said that board members and staff have been evaluating district policies related to contracting, election conduct and ethics since December 2010.
“Dozens of policies have been rewritten and updated to strengthen them and close loopholes,” she wrote. “The pay-for-play era at Southwestern College is over.”
In April, the board directed the college’s legal counsel to hire an independent forensic auditor to investigate concerns and work with the district attorney.
College Superintendent/president Dr. Melinda Nish said the results will be complete upon completion.
Another action taken by college governing board member Humberto Peraza at last week’s board meeting includes a proposal to create campaign contributions for future candidates.
“High schools and elementary school districts don’t have limits,” Peraza said. “Unlimited is unacceptable.”
Southwestern currently has no limits on the amount of money a candidate can accept from individuals or businesses.
“When you start having checks for $30,000, I think that’s a problem,” Peraza said.
Peraza is proposing a $1,000 ceiling on contributions for now.
Governing board trustee Tim Nader said the recent events illustrate the need for the proposal.
“It should be low enough so that citizens can feel assured that an interest groups can’t buy elections and high enough that candidates can raise the money for the campaign,” Nader said. “At all levels its overdue to reduce the role of special interest money to have a credible campaign.”
In addition to the finance reform, Peraza also said he wants to create a taskforce in the next five or six months to see how it can be better managed in the future.
Peraza and Nader, who sit on the college’s policy committee, will meet and give their full proposal to the board next month.
A previous headline for this story incorrectly identified SGI as the construction firm with whom Southwestern College has suspended contracts.
Southwestern College has suspended its contracts with Seville Construction Services, or SCS.
The Star-News regrets the error.