By Lina Chankar
Defendants in the ongoing South Bay Corruption case had 22 charges dropped by the San Diego County District Attorney, but still face 240 criminal counts that the DA plans to prosecute. Most of the dropped charges were accusations of extortion brought forward by the San Diego County Grand Jury.
Seven of the 15 defendants in the pay-for-play case have Southwestern College connections. The others are current and former Sweetwater Union High School District officials or agents of construction firms.
Three defendants appeared at the South Bay Courthouse for the two-day hearing, including former SWC trustee Yolanda Salcido and former administrator John Wilson.
A grand jury indictment originally contained a total of 262 charges. After dismissal of extortion charges the defendants now face a total of 240 charges, most of which are felonies.
Deputy District Attorney Leon Schorr said he understood the reasoning of the grand jury to indict on extortion, but he said he does not believe extortion to be consistent with the case.
“After review of the law, review of facts, as well as review of motions made by defense counsel, we made the decision in the interest of justice, not just for Ms. (Arlie) Ricasa, but on all extortion counts, to go ahead and dismiss,” Schorr said.
He made it clear the DA would prosecute the remaining charges.
Ricasa, SWC director of EOPS, was granted dismissal of only two counts. She is now facing a total of 31 counts.
Judge Ana España also granted dismissal of four charges against former SWC trustee Jorge Dominguez, including conspiracy to commit a crime, filing false instrument, perjury by declaration and gifts in excess of legal amount.
Schorr said former SWC Superintendent Raj Chopra still faces multiple felony counts related to false information on Form 700, required by public officials to report gifts and other outside income. Most of the South Bay Corruption Case defendants did not report gifts on the form, Schorr said.
Several charges against Salcido were also dismissed, including filing a false instrument, perjury by declaration, gifts in excess of legal amount and perjury.
Former SWC Interim President Greg Sandoval was granted dismissal of two out of 33 counts.
Sandoval’s attorney, Ricardo Gonzales, told the judge that it is common practice for politicians to do favors for their contributors.
“Everyone that contributes to a politician expects the politician to favor them in some way, but the politician is not articulating any exchange for that contribution,” said Gonzales.
España said there were several lavish dinners around a time critical votes were being taken.
“The vendors who gave them gifts benefited significantly by winning these lucrative contracts at Sweetwater, right?” she said.
Attorney Paul Pfingst, attorney for former Sweetwater superintendent Jesus Gandara, responded.
“Yes,” said Pfingst, “and they made it very clear we want to maintain good relations with the elected officials at Sweetwater. This is certainly not unique.”
España said the evidence presented by the grand jury suggests there is an agreement between contractors, financiers, SWC and Sweetwater officials to commit bribery.
“There is sufficient evidence in grand jury transcripts to support that finding,” she said.
Gilbane Building Company cooperated with investigators and turned over records of questionable entertainment expenses, receipts and emails by its former employee Henry Amigable, said Schorr.
Amigable, who worked on projects at SWC, allegedly paid bribes in exchange for contract deals. One of his biggest benefactors was former SWC administrator Nick Alioto, former SWC Vice President of Business and Financial Affairs. Alioto was not granted dismissal of any of the12 charges against him.
District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said defendants received scores of bribes in the form of dinners, concert tickets, Los Angeles Lakers tickets, hotel stays, Southwest Airlines tickets, trips to Napa Valley and even cash for children’s beauty pageants. Most of the defendants have criminal affidavits more than 100 pages long.
Schorr told the judge that it is out of the ordinary for public officials to receive expensive gifts and meals when they are supposed to be representing the best interests of the district and public tax dollars.
“Gifts that are illegal because they’re over the limit and gifts that are not reported – that’s where we have some serious issues,” he said.
The majority of remaining charges are felonies and, if convicted, defendants could face prison time, Schorr said.
España said all defendants are required to appear in court Oct. 29 for a readiness conference.