Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Judge Change Delays Arraignment Hearing

*By Nickolas Furr and Lina Chankar

Following nearly six weeks of delays, Superior Court Judge Ana España pushed back the arraignment hearing of former Southwestern College administrators a third time, to April 12. España said she wanted to review the material and “understand what the issues are.” There are 60,000 different documents involved, according to San Diego County District Attorney estimates.

Arraignments were originally scheduled to begin Jan. 7 at the San Diego Central Courthouse. Judge Timothy Walsh pushed back the date of arraignments until Jan. 30 and moved the location of the court to the South County Courthouse in Chula Vista. Judge Stephanie Sontag was to preside. The District Attorney’s office filed a motion to move the case back to San Diego, but last week Walsh ordered it to remain in South County, citing the fact that since most defendants and the school districts were from this part of the county, the case should remain in Chula Vista. On Feb. 15, Sontag assigned the case to España.

District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis began issuing indictments in the South Bay Corruption Case in December 2010. Dumanis called it the largest corruption case of its kind in San Diego County history. So far the D.A.’s office has filed 232 criminal charges against 15 elected officials, school administrators and school contractors in three different school districts. There have been complaints about the size of the courtroom, which seats about 30 people. After defendants and members of the press are allowed inside, there are only seats for five or six members of the public. With the trial in Chula Vista, many members of the public who queue up outside the courtroom expressed concern that they might never be able to attend the trial.

Raj K. Chopra, former Southwestern College superintendent, and former SWC trustees Yolanda Salcido and Jorge Dominguez, join four others with SWC connections – Nicholas Alioto, former vice president of business and finance; John Wilson, former facilities director; Greg Sandoval, former interim superintendent; and Arlie Ricasa, current EOPS director.

Chopra, Salcido, Dominguez, Alioto and Wilson have all been charged with crimes for actions related to SWC. Sandoval and Ricasa have been charged with crimes for actions related to Sweetwater Union High School District. Ricasa is a Sweetwater trustee. Sandoval is a former trustee, but is now an administrator at Moreno Valley Community College.

Sweetwater trustees Jim Cartmill and Bertha Lopez join previous SUHSD defendants Pearl Quinones, Jesus Gandara, Ricasa and Sandoval. Indictments now include all five members of the 2006-2010 SUHSD governing board, along with former superintendent Gandara.

San Ysidro district superintendent Manuel Paul was also charged, along with San Ysidro trustee Yolanda Hernandez. She failed to appear on Jan. 7, but has since been arraigned.

The 14th and 15th persons included in this round of indictments are Jeff Flores, president of Seville Construction Services, and financier Gary Cabello. Flores has been involved with several projects on the SWC campus and he is the former employer of Henry Amigable, who has already pleaded guilty to a pair of misdemeanors from the first round of indictments. Cabello helped to finance municipal school bonds and calculate the interest and impact on district taxpayers.

Charges filed by the district attorney’s office came from San Diego County grand jury findings. Following motions by the defendants’ lawyers, those findings are currently sealed. But the charges are public information. They include multiple counts of extortion, accepting bribes, accepting bribes from members of the legislature, perjury, conspiracy to defraud and conspiracy to commit a crime. Alioto, Wilson and Ricasa all had further charges leveled against them.

Chopra was one of four of the 15 defendants not to appear in court. He also did not appear on Jan. 7 or Jan. 30. His attorneys said he was suffering from “ill health” and “depression.” This time, attorney Mike Attanasio claimed that a 977 waiver had been filed on Chopra’s behalf so he would not have to be present. No reason was offered. The court accepted the waiver. Paul was also absent on a 977 waiver.

Alioto and Gandara both flew back to California for Jan. 30 arraignments from Wisconsin and Texas, respectively. Given the issues with the courthouse location, Sontag allowed attorneys for both men to advise them that their clients did not have to appear last week. Neither appeared. Alioto also failed to appear on Jan. 7.

Following her review of the documents, España said she plans to hear motions on April 12 to keep the findings of the grand jury sealed. She will also hear motions to demur and dismiss the case on the grounds that there is no legal basis to bring the case to trial. Dominguez is one of four who are seeking demurrer, according to attorney Vikas Bajaj. It is still unknown whether arraignments will actually continue on that day.

Last week defense attorneys requested the rights to file 977 waivers to allow their clients to skip the April court appearance. España said she “would have no objection to that.”

España was involved with a Sweetwater case in May 2010. She denied a request for an order of protection to make Stewart Payne, a district parent, stay at least 100 feet away from trustee John McCann, following a parking-lot incident after a board meeting. The district attorney’s office has not charged McCann with any corruption charges, and he remains the only current unindicted member of the Sweetwater board.

At this time, Alioto, Salcido and Cabello are receiving taxpayer-funded legal assistance from court appointed public defenders.

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