By Lina Chankar and Nickolas Furr
Former Southwestern College Superintendent Raj K. Chopra pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor this afternoon in South Bay Superior Court and will avoid prison in the on-going South Bay Corruption case. Chopra’s attorney Michael Attanasio pleaded guilty on Chopra’s behalf to one misdemeanor in return for the court dropping the four remaining charges he faced.
Chopra had originally faced 13 charges — nine of them felonies — including perjury, receiving a bribe and conflict of interest. Judge Ana España met privately with several people involved in the case this morning before the court’s scheduled 1:30 p.m. start time. She accepted the plea and set April 7, 2014 as the date for Chopra’s formal sentencing. Chopra did not appear in court even though España had ordered him to earlier this month. Attanasio said Chopra would not have to make any more court appearances.
Attanasio said Chopra was “looking forward to doing community service.”
“Dr. Chopra is gratified to put this entire matter behind him,” Attanasio said. “Charged with nine felony accounts, including bribery and conflict of interest. Those charges were completely without merit and should have never been brought as the resolution of the case shows. We resolved the case with a single misdemeanor based on what was essentially a bookkeeping error about three dinners he attended.”
Attanasio said Chopra is now finished with the case.
“He thanks the court system for its fairness and he looks forward to the rest of his retirement,” Attanasio said. “Having pled to the misdemeanor, he remains on 977 (allowing him to miss court appearances) and is able to not come back for the sentencing. I will handle the sentencing.
While some involved in the case said today that Chopra may have received a light penalty because he was in ill health, Attanasio said that was not true.
“He’s doing fine now,” Attanasio said. “ We’ll leave it at that. His health is fine and he’s looking forward to the rest of his retirement.”
Attanasio said he was unable to provide specifics about the sentence.
“I expect a likely sentence will include some amount of community service which he will certainly comply with voluntarily and with the same dedication to community service he’s always shown as an educator.”
Chopra’s plea deal follows last week’s announcement by the San Diego County District Attorney that bond underwriter Gary Cabello had pled guilty to two felony counts in the case that DA Bonnie Dumanis called the largest corruption scandal in San Diego County history. Cabello had worked with Chopra and former SWC vice president Nicholas Alioto to obtain bonds for the college’s Proposition R-funded construction projects.
Former Sevile Construction executive Henry Amigable pleaded to a misdemeanor charge last year in exchange for cooperation with the prosecutors. Architect Paul Bunton and construction executive Rene Flores pleaded guilty to misdemeanors last year in exchange for cooperation with the district attorney.
Ricardo Gonzalez, the attorney for former SWC Interim President Greg Sandoval, blamed Amigable for getting Sandoval in trouble.
“I think Amigable was padding his expense account,” said Gonzalez. “So it made it look worse than it was. He was reporting to his employer for reimbursement more than he was spending. He was spending for his own personal use and it attributed to people he was with.”
Gonzalez would not say whether Sandoval would plead guilty.
“At this point we have not reached any agreement (in regard to pleading guilty) and we’re prepared to go to trial,” he said.
Vikas Bajaj, attorney for former SWC Trustee Jorge Dominguez, said she is hopeful her client will receive consideration similar to Chopra.
“The remaining counts against Dominguez are felonies, but it’s up to the judge’s discretion to reduce them to misdemeanors,” she said.
Dominguez currently faces 11 felonies.