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.

Bertha Lopez Received Money From Contractors and Law Firm Connection

This article is interesting for two reasons. First, it has intriguing information. Second, it suggests who may have put pressure on Bonnie Dumanis to conduct these raids.

Bertha Lopez Received Money From Contractors and Law Firm Connection
June 17, 2011
posted by Southern Exposure
San Diego Rostra

It’s interesting that Board Member Bertha Lopez keeps throwing stones at everyone else for taking money from contractors and the law firm for Sweetwater Union High School District. Most concerning, however, is her complete lack of forthrightness when it comes to her own campaign donations. Lopez attacks other board members for their donations, while continuing to say her votes are independent, but where is her openness about the campaign money she took from the very same contractors and contributor connected to the legal firm?

Just go to the county website and search under Lopez’s last name to check out her filings. You will find the following campaign contributions totaling almost $20,000:

Barnhart – $5,000
Design Acquisition Corp – $3,000
Marston & Martson – $3,000
CTE, Inc. (Thomas Gaeto) – $1,000
Rotech – $2,500
Consulting and Inspection Svcs – $1,000
Jose Mireles, Latino Builder – $500
Romero Leonor (HAR) – $250
Seville – $2,000
Laura Martinez – $1,000

The San Diego Reader recently published an article [see below] calling out Board members who took money from Laura Martinez (who apparently co-owns a house with Sweetwater Attorney Bonifacio Garcia), but the story fails to mention that Bertha Lopez also received $1,000 from Martinez. The Reader story seems to be in response to an interview with Lopez — did it not occur to the reporter when listening to complaints from Lopez that her contributions should be checked as well?

Also interesting is that Lopez received a $500 campaign contribution from Mark Watton, general manager of the Otay Water District, where husband Lopez sits on the board. What on earth could Mark Watton care about who gets elected to the board of SUHSD? He and his wife live nowhere near the district. Yet, Jose Lopez, Bertha’s husband, is Watton’s boss...

Sweetwater Union High School District Money Trail Gets Longer
By Susan Luzzaro
San Diego Reader
June 7, 2011

In a recent interview, Bertha Lopez voiced a strong opinion about Sweetwater Union High School District attorney Bonifacio Garcia. Lopez, who has been a Sweetwater boardmember since 2008 and served as a Chula Vista boardmember for ten years before that, said she did not trust the advice offered by the attorney. Why not?

Garcia recently advised the board to hire attorney Greg Vega to do an independent review of district expenditures. According to Lopez, Garcia did not reveal that Vega had worked for the district. A Union-Tribune story also reported that Vega reviewed Garcia’s employment contract last July.

Garcia has been the district’s main attorney since l996. In 2006, the Union-Tribune wrote, “South County’s high school board has scrapped a $400-an-hour contract with its main attorneys in favor of a $320,400-a-year deal designed to rein in legal spending that topped $1.1 million in the year ending June 30.” Garcia, with the firm Burke, Williams and Sorensen, was the main attorney.

Garcia formed a new firm (Garcia, Calderon and Ruiz) and continued to work for Sweetwater. Changing names does not appear to equal reining in legal spending: Garcia’s current contract with the district is $84,334 a month, or a little over $1 million a year.

Citizens for Good Government in the South Bay was a political action committee that operated out of Garcia’s office until March, when it became inactive. Yuri Calderon, a member of Garcia's law firm, was the treasurer. Garcia gave generously to this committee, as did Laura Martinez, who co-owns a house with Garcia in Sierra Madre, California, according to documents.

According to records kept by the San Diego County Registrar of Voters, Jim Cartmill, a Sweetwater boardmember since l996, received $5000 from the Citizens for Good Government in South Bay in last November’s election. He also received $5000 from Laura Martinez. Arlie Ricasa, first elected in 1998 and re-elected last November, received $5000 from Laura Martinez. And newly elected John McCann received $900 from Laura Martinez.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Chula Vista school’s turnaround turns head

How did CVESD do it? Maybe this story offers a clue, since there has been no real change in how the district approaches education.

Chula Vista school’s turnaround turns head
Elementary charter has gone from federal improvement list to distinguished status
November 23, 2011

A charter school in Chula Vista was performing so poorly on state assessments that it made the federal watch list for three years. Now it has staged a dramatic turnaround that is attracting international attention.

Today, the 822-student school has test scores among the highest in the Chula Vista Elementary School District and has been recognized as a California Distinguished School. The dual-language immersion campus has become a type of laboratory where professors from San Diego State University as well as educators from Mexico, England and Switzerland visit, hoping to discover the secret to its success.

Chula Vista Learning Community Charter, which was on the federal “program improvement” list until 2008, has raised its Academic Performance Index scores from 680 in 2005 to 880 in 2011, exceeding the state goal of 800. Every March, hundreds of parents converge on its parking lot to submit applications, with some camping overnight. Last spring, 320 applicants were turned away.

At this school, everyone has a role in the education of children.

Teachers are encouraged to be “teacher scholars” and are expected to keep up with research being done in the field of education. Parent involvement is a high priority, with parents required to volunteer 30 hours a year, including attending parent meetings where administrators offer tips for helping with homework and review lessons their children are being taught.

Students at the school take half their courses in English and half in Spanish each day, and also get weekly instruction in Mandarin, a third language added two years ago. About 95 percent of students at the K-8 school are Latino, with about 53 percent English-language learners and about half come from families poor enough they qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Parents say they like the school for the language immersion and rigorous instruction. Martha Garcia, whose 4-year-old daughter is in kindergarten, said she’s pleased so far. “She reads already in both languages,” Garcia said.

Those who cannot meet the time commitment are asked to leave. “We are a choice school. You choose to be here,” said school Director Jorge Ramirez.

The campus’ turnaround caught the eye of researchers at San Diego State University who were looking at schools that have had success in closing the achievement gap.

SDSU professor Cristina Alfaro is among a team of seven SDSU researchers with the College of Education with expertise in literacy, biliteracy, administration and child development who are studying every aspect of the school — from how its administrators lead staff to how teachers collaborate and develop curriculum to better target the backgrounds of their students.

Alfaro said teachers at the school work closely together, analyze test data to see where gaps exist and alter teaching plans to shore up weak areas.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

CVESD board member Bejarano linked to firm that tried to smuggle son of Gadhafi into Mexico

U-T: SD Firm Linked To Mexican Plot To Smuggle Gadhafi's Son
Veritas Worldwide Security Says Its Associates Were Only In Mexico To Collect Money
Wendy Fry, U-T
December 7, 2011

SAN DIEGO -- Mexican authorities on Wednesday said they thwarted an attempt to smuggle a son of former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi into a resort near Puerto Vallarta, a conspiracy they say involves two associates of a San Diego-based security company.

The associates of Veritas Worldwide Security are being detained in Mexico, along with two others who have been arrested, after an investigation dubbed by authorities as "Operation Guest," according to Mexican authorities and an employee of the company.

Veritas specializes in clandestine operations, armed combat and provision of weapons, according to its website, and it lists Chula Vista Police Chief David Bejarano as its executive vice president for law enforcement training.

Bejarano, who is also a former San Diego police chief, said Wednesday he was a vice president with the company on paper only and has not had any contact with anyone from the company since January.

"I have no idea who is working for the company. I have not done any consulting for the company. I have not received any compensation from the company," Bejarano said. "I wasn't aware I was on their website. I just assumed that the company never got started and I never heard any more."

Saadi Gadhafi, 38, a former professional soccer player, is accused by the Libyan National Transitional Government of commanding Army Special Forces military units that brutally suppressed demonstrators during recent final uprisings against the regime. He is wanted by Interpol and is being held in Niger without extradition.

Four suspects in the smuggling attempt — including a Canadian woman named Cynthia Vanier identified as the mastermind — are under house arrest in Mexico.

Two people connected to Veritas were identified by Mexican authorities as members of the criminal network planning the operation — Gabriela Dávila Huerta and Pierre Christian Flensborg. The authorities said the two arranged air travel to destinations included Mexico, the U.S., Canada, Kosovo and several Middle Eastern countries.

"The large economic resources which this criminal organization has, or had, allowed them to contract private flights," Interior Minister Alejandro Poire said at a Wednesday morning news conference.

According to Gregory Gillispie, director of special operations for Veritas, Huerta and Pierre are his associates through another company, G&G Holdings, and had been sent to Mexico to collect money for air travel.

Gillispie said the payment was for travel to Tunisia for Vanier. Gillispie said he knew nothing about what passengers were up to.

"I brokered an airplane deal," he said. "That's all I did."

Further, he said, his associates were not able to collect their payment before being detained.

Michael Boffo, a training official for Veritas, said Wednesday he is worried about his two co-workers detained in Mexico and that the situation is horrible.

Boffo confirmed the company has leased a plane to Vanier a couple times and also denied any responsibility for the plot.

"We weren't involved in it," he said. "If I rent a car to you and you go rob a bank with it ... "

Bejarano has a history with Joseph Casas, CEO of Veritas Worldwide Security, the San Diego company whose associates have been detained in Mexico over a plot to smuggle in Saadi Gadhafi.

Casas, an attorney, represented Bejarano in May 2010 in a dispute the chief had with a former business partner from an unrelated private security firm that Bejarano had co-owned.

Bejarano’s former business partner at Presidential Security claimed Bejarano was still writing checks and collecting a paycheck from the firm after leaving to become police chief in August 2009.

Bejarano said he was approached a year ago by Casas to provide “active shooter, threat training and first responder training” at a Veritas center in San Antonio. Bejarano is listed on the Veritas website as executive vice president of law enforcement training.

“Headquartered in San Diego, Calif., VW Security is in the ideal location to provide personal security detachments (PSD) to both American and Mexican clientele,” according to the Veritas website. Bejarano said he signed a contract with Veritas Worldwide Security, but would not provide it because it’s confidential. He said he has received no compensation from the company and may have made an investment of $500 in the venture.

“I’m not aware what they’re involved in or what they did, but obviously if they’re involved in anything illegal, I absolutely would not condone that or be involved in that,” Bejarano said.

The company’s website also states, “With kidnapping and border violence at unprecedented highs, VW Security can provide safety and peace of mind for a wide range of domestic and international scenarios.”

Bejarano leads a department of 224 sworn law officers, 100 civilian staff members and about 70 volunteers. He oversees a budget of about $44 million providing law enforcement services to the second largest city in the county with 225,000 residents.

In addition to being Chula Vista’s police chief, where Bejarano earns an annual salary of $187,000, he is on the board of directors at Vibra Bank and the Chula Vista Elementary School District.

Also listed among Veritas personnel, as vice president of acquisitions, is former Port Commissioner Michael Najera. He could not be reached for comment.