New year, new charges


The attorneys for the majority of 15 current and former South Bay officials postponed an arraignment at the downtown superior courthouse Monday following numerous charges handed down by a San Diego County Grand Jury.

The District Attorney’s Office charged the defendants with a total of 232 misdemeanors and felonies in an ongoing corruption case involving pay for play conduct with ties to three South Bay school districts.

Ten new people join others previously indicted, including Sweetwater school board members Bertha Lopez and Jim Cartmill; former Southwestern College superintendent Raj Chopra; former Southwestern College vice president of business and financial affairs Nicholas Alioto; San Ysidro school board member Yolanda Hernandez; Seville Construction Services president Jeffrey Flores; superintendent of San Ysidro schools Manuel Paul; former bond financier for Southwestern and Sweetwater Gary Cabello; former Southwestern College governing board member Jorge Dominguez; former Southwestern director of business, operations and facilities planning John Wilson; and former Southwestern College governing board president Yolanda Salcido.

The original five are former Sweetwater district superintendent Jesus Gandara, former board member Greg Sandoval, South Bay contractor Henry Amigable and current Sweetwater board members Arlie Ricasa-Bagaporo and Pearl Quinones,who plead not guilty to charges in January 2012.

Charges vary by defendant but include bribery related to contracts, perjury on financial disclosure forms, exceeding allowable gift limits, filing a false instrument, influencing an elected official, obtaining or offering a thing of value to influence a member of a legislative body, wrongful influence and conspiracy to commit a crime, conflict of interest due to personal financial interests and extortion.

The 16-member grand jury decision was made following seven weeks of deliberation beginning Nov. 7 and ending Dec. 21, during which approximately 70 witnesses testified, more 1,400 documents were entered into evidence and more than 57,000 pages of discovery were compiled by prosecutors, according to the District Attorney’s Office.

This is the third arraignment on this case, according to criminal defense attorney Paul Pfingst, who said he doesn’t expect a trial until fall or winter this year.

Judge Timothy Walsh granted the new arraignment date of Jan. 30 to give defense attorneys time to review the indictments.

The DA’s office has been gathering a case against South County officials since December 2011, when several homes were raided after complaints were made alleging the defendants accepted thousands of dollars worth of gifts, entertainment and meals in exchange for votes on multi-million-dollar construction contracts under voter-approved bonds.

In a prepared statement released yesterday, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said the grand jury process moved the case along faster, saving court time and taxpayer dollars.

However, Pfingst and other defense attorneys say grand jury indictments are one-sided.

“The defense is now unable to cross examine … the sole witness who said there was a bribe,” Pfingst said, referring to Amigable. “…If the indictment was (somehow) flawed, we’d have an opportunity to file a demurrer…”
Initial felony charges against Amigable were dismissed in March after he pleaded guilty to offering a valuable thing to a school district governing board member with the intent to influence, a misdemeanor.

In addition, the indictments added two conspiracy counts to Gandara’s case.

Chopra, Alioto and Hernandez were not present in court but were represented by attorneys. All defendants postponed their arraignment except for Cabello, whose attorney entered a not guilty please on his behalf.

“He’s worked all over the state and has never been accused of any wrongdoing in 20-plus years of financing,” Cabello’s attorney Heather Boxeth said.

If convicted of the charges, defendants face between six months and seven years in state prison, as well as fines.

Additional penalties could include removal from office and a lifetime ban from elected office, according to the District Attorney’s Office.

New year, new charges