Wednesday, December 21, 2011

DA's office raids South Bay politicos

Bonnie Dumanis seems to have a strange focus for her public integrity unit. It seems to target Democratic Chula Vistans almost entirely. San Diego is a big county, Bonnie. Are you influenced by your boss, Greg Cox, whose wife is the Republican mayor of Chula Vista? This article suggests that Republicans on the Sweetwater Union School District board might also have put pressure. It is interesting that the home of Jesus Gandara was not searched. They wouldn't leave him out, it would seem, unless he were providing information voluntarily.

DA's office raids South Bay politicos
Warrants served on six former and current officials and one contractor
By Wendy Fry, Jeff McDonald and Ashly McGlone
Dec. 20, 2011

Months of investigation into potential corruption at Sweetwater schools and Southwestern College prompted the District Attorney’s Office to execute search warrants Tuesday at the homes of six sitting and past officials.

Also searched was the holiday-decorated home of Henry Amigable, a construction contractor who has worked for both districts.

The searches began early and went on throughout the day at residences from Bonita to Escondido. Investigators spent hours at each site, carting away computers and boxes of documents and declining to comment on the unfolding criminal case. No one was arrested.

One of the first places to be searched was the National City home of Sweetwater Union High School District board member Pearl Quiñones, with agents arriving at the East Sixth Street residence as early as 8:30 a.m.

Quiñones sat on the living-room sofa flanked by two agents as investigators boxed up evidence and carried it out to waiting vehicles. She declined to comment through an investigator.

Later in the day, investigators executed search warrants at the homes of Sweetwater trustees Arlie Ricasa and Bertha Lopez.

“The district attorney is doing their job and I don’t have anything to hide,” Lopez said. “That is the bottom line.”

Five District Attorney’s Office staffers entered Ricasa’s home on Sunny Crest Lane in Bonita even though she was not home at the time. Ricasa arrived at about 1:40 p.m. She said she didn’t know why investigators were there or what they might be seeking.

Absent from the list of those whose homes were searched was Jesus Gandara, the former Sweetwater superintendent who was fired by the board in June amid a series of stories by The Watchdog. Several focused on the district’s interactions with contractors.

The District Attorney’s Office declined to discuss details of the searches, beyond confirming for the first time that it was conducting a criminal probe.

“We can’t comment on a pending investigation,” spokesman Steve Walker said. “I really can’t go any further than that.”

Search warrants typically are signed by a judge only after investigators sign affidavits laying out their case for why they should be permitted inside the home of a suspect or witness.

The affidavits relied on by the District Attorney’s Office were sealed by the court for 10 days. Typically, they would be available for public scrutiny sometime next week.

Those targeted for raids share a web of connections, tied to construction bond measures approved by voters within the two districts.

Amigable works for Echo Pacific Construction, which has won contracts with Southwestern and Sweetwater. He did not return messages left at his home and on his cellphone.

Amigable previously worked as a senior executive at Gilbane Building Co. at the time it won construction-management work for Proposition O, the $644 million bond measure Sweetwater voters passed in 2006.

Echo Pacific was given a $4 million Southwestern contract three weeks after it went on a Napa Valley wine weekend with college officials — a getaway won at auction for $15,000, benefiting a scholarship fund. Amigable went on the trip, which was the subject of a Watchdog story last year. Nicholas Alioto, then Southwestern’s vice president for business and financial affairs, also went.

Alioto’s home was searched Tuesday. He could not be reached for comment but said at the time of the previous story that it was normal for contractors to bid in fundraisers for prizes that bring time with key decision-makers.

Amigable prepared a fundraising dinner prize paid for by an architectural firm — sushi with former Southwestern President Raj Chopra.

Authorities also searched the home of former Southwestern director of business affairs John Wilson.

Two of the officials whose homes were searched have ties to both institutions. Ricasa is a Sweetwater board member and serves as Southwestern’s director of student development and health services. Former Sweetwater board member Greg Sandoval is also former vice president of student affairs at Southwestern.

Contacted by telephone early Tuesday afternoon, Sandoval said he knew nothing about being the subject of a raid and added that he had rented out his home in Escondido and had moved to Moreno Valley.

An hour later, he answered the front door at the Escondido home on West El Norte Parkway and declined to discuss the search that had just concluded on the premises.

“No comment,” he said, before shutting the door and drawing the blinds.

Weeks ago, prosecutors executed a search warrant at the Pasadena offices of SGI Construction Management, the firm paid tens of millions of dollars to supervise Sweetwater’s Proposition O projects.

Jaime Ortiz, the SGI bond manager, confirmed the visit by investigators but said he was informed his company is not a target.

Superintendent Ed Brand, who replaced Gandara on a temporary basis in June and was installed permanently by the board last week, did not return calls.

Those whose homes were searched

By Jeff McDonald and Ashly McGlone
Dec. 20, 2011

Day-end total on South Bay raids: 7

Nicholas Alioto

Former Southwestern College vice president for business and financial affairs. Alioto, 46, resigned in February, after The Watchdog published reports about a trip he took in 2010 to Napa Valley with a developer. Three weeks after paying $15,000 to tour the wine country with Alioto and others, Echo Pacific Construction of Escondido won a $4 million contract with Southwestern College. Prior to his resignation, Alioto also was criticized for inviting several Southwestern College contractors to a wine-and-cheese fundraiser for board members.

Henry Amigable

A former senior vice president at Seville Construction Services of Pasadena, which won a $2.7-million contract from Southwestern College. Amigable, 47, attended the same Napa Valley event Alioto attended in 2010. According to his profile on the online networking site Linked In, Amigable left Seville in February, the same month that Alioto resigned from Southwestern College. The same website notes that Amigable now works at Echo Pacific Construction.

Bertha Lopez

A National City schoolteacher, Lopez served for 10 years on the Chula Vista Elementary School District before winning a seat on the Sweetwater board in 2008. She had been a consistent critic of Superintendent Jesus Gandara before he was fired, even though she dined with him at district expense 11 times, according to The Watchdog’s report in April. Lopez, 57, has historically ended up on the losing end of divided board votes. She is up for re-election next year.

Greg Sandoval

Served four terms on the Sweetwater Union High School District before deciding not to seek re-election in 2010. Sandoval, 57, formerly worked as a vice president for student affairs at Southwestern College and resigned after being accused of sexual harassment. The Watchdog reported earlier this year that Sandoval dined at taxpayer expense with Gandara 41 times over a three-year period.

Pearl Quiñones

Worked as a school dropout counselor before winning election in 2000 to the Sweetwater Union High School District board, where she was just elected president. Quinones, 59, was a key supporter of Gandara, and dined with the former superintendent at taxpayer expense at least 49 times in three years. She also was criticized in 2009 for attending too many conferences at district expense. She defended those expenditures as a good way to get educated about the duties of a public school-board member.

Arlie Ricasa

A graduate of Sweetwater schools, Ricasa now works as the director of student development and health services at Southwestern College. She was first elected to the Sweetwater board in 1998 and last year was re-elected, in part with the aid of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from Proposition O contractors. Ricasa, 47, serves as chair of the board of directors of the MAAC Project nonprofit in Chula Vista. In January, The Watchdog reported that state auditors found MAAC leaders wrongly commingled federal stimulus funds. Ricasa dined with Gandara 92 times at taxpayer expense over the same three-year period.

John Wilson

Former director of business services at Southwestern College who has since worked as a consultant on bond projects. The U-T reported in 2008 that Wilson was dating college board Trustee Yolanda Salcido, and that Salcido voted on raises for Wilson and on construction contracts he recommended to the Southwestern governing board. Salcido’s campaign signs were in Quiñones’ garage when it was searched by investigators.

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