Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Sweetwater legal fees effort fizzles

Shame on the teachers union for not calling a halt to corruption years earlier. There were articles for years in the San Diego Union Tribune about the strange legal fees paid to Bonny Garcia. Why was CTA silent? Because CTA gets cooperation behind the scenes from corrupt board members in most districts.

Sweetwater legal fees effort fizzles
Proposal to fund them for 3 current and one former official dies
Ashly McGlone
Jan. 31, 2012

An effort to have the Sweetwater school district pay up to $1.3 million in legal fees for current and former officials ran into trouble Tuesday as the idea lacked support from the community and the school board.

Items on the agenda to fund the legal defense of former board member Greg Sandoval and current board members Pearl Quinones and Arlie Ricasa did not move forward, as no one on the board moved the items for action.

Quinones, Sandoval and Ricasa are charged by the District Attorney’s Office with accepting gifts from contractors, failing to report them on required state forms and then voting for contracts for the donors. They have pleaded not guilty. All three were on the agenda for $400,000 in fees.

Board member Bertha Lopez, whose home was raided but she was not charged, was on the agenda for a $100,000 of legal fees. She withdrew the request around 12:45 a.m. Tuesday at the end of a seven-hour meeting.

As the district laid out the agenda, board members would be able to recuse themselves from the vote on their own legal fees, but approve the expense for colleagues.

Attorneys Cory Briggs, from a citizens group suing for return of payments to contractors, told the board that recusal would not work to cure a conflict of interest for board members voting.

The meeting was the first since Jan. 4, when District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis issued the charges.

More than 700 people gathered in the gymnasium at Hilltop High School for varying reasons. A group of about 30 people in attendance supporting board member Arlie Ricasa wore blue ribbons.

At least 200 held signs reading "Recall or Resign."

Mar Vista High School teacher Lauren McLennan served three members --Ricasa, Jim Cartmill and John McCann -- with recall notices.

McLennan, a leader of the newly created "Occupy Sweetwater" movement, said trustees must be recalled because they "have let scandal after scandal occur on their watch because they are more focused on their political careers than their duties as school board members."

"We are not recalling them simply because of the felonies and misdemeanors,” McLennan said. ‘’This is for years and years of neglect."

Craig Miles, teacher and varsity tennis coach at Montgomery High School, said, "You have to be here because this is about the future of the district, not only for the board members but about the bond money and how it is being used and who is trying to control it."

Miles cautioned the public to reserve judgment.

"The turnout is good and this process will play out but the legal issues have to be respected and they often take time and everyone is innocent until proven guilty, not just accused."

Many members of the public expressed ardent opposition to the proposed payment of legal fees.

Sofia Reyes, 11, took to the podium Monday to urge board members to not approve the legal fees.

"That money shouldn't be used to pay for the board member's attorneys. It should go towards improving the schools," Reyes said. "Clean up your act. Next year when I enter middle school I want to be proud of my district, not ashamed by what they have done and hidden from us."

Saturday, January 28, 2012

When the Trouble Started for Sweetwater Schools

Bond money seems to have gone up in smoke in other school districts, but Bonnie Dumanis focuses on Chula Vista Democrats. Why?

When the Trouble Started for Sweetwater Schools
January 23, 2012
By Rob Davis

The construction company's website implicitly acknowledges the potential for public officials to abuse their posts. But the Seville Group says it stands above that. Integrity isn't just a buzzword, its About Us page says. Ethics are at the core of the company's existence. Without ethics, there is only failure.

Click on the company motto — Edge, Execute, Excel — and its principles appear.
"We have a simple test," it says. "Before you make any decision on behalf of the company ask yourself these questions: Is it illegal? Is it immoral? Is it unethical? Is it stupid? Most public officials who get into trouble should have answered ‘yes' to one of these questions. The same is true for companies that work for public agencies."

Trouble started for the Sweetwater Union High School District on a spring evening in 2007, with what seemed like a routine decision on an innocuous agenda item involving Seville. Months earlier, voters had approved borrowing $644 million to modernize the South Bay school district's buildings. Now, the public agency overseeing the South Bay's middle and high schools had to choose someone to oversee all that spending.
The selection process had been exhaustive, board members were told. Then-Superintendent Jesus Gandara recommended what he said was the top firm: a joint venture of Seville Group and another company, Gilbane. The board hired the venture and handed it $7.5 million in work.

But Gilbane/Seville hadn't initially been the top firm. The district's internal ratings were tossed out. That happened routinely.

The district's decision to hire Gilbane/Seville — and later to give it even more work — brought instant criticism, even allegations of corruption. Now, five years later, it has led to criminal charges, in what District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis says was a pervasive pay-to-play scheme.

At the same time Gilbane/Seville leapfrogged another company ranked higher, it bestowed its largess on officials handing out tens of millions in contracts. Court records show that Gandara, who recommended the company, saw "Jersey Boys" with a Gilbane contractor and was treated to expensive dinners at restaurants across the region.

When Gandara's daughter competed for the title of Miss Texas, where they lived previously, the contractor, Henry Amigable, stepped forward with a $1,000 sponsorship, court documents say. When then-board member Greg Sandoval's daughter vied to become Miss South County, Amigable wrote a $500 check, records show. Gandara, Sandoval and two current Sweetwater board members — Pearl Quiñones and Arlie Ricasa — all face felony charges of failing to report numerous gifts from contractors.

The case strikes at the heart of the South Bay political establishment. Beyond those charged, investigators have searched the home of Bertha Lopez, a Sweetwater trustee whose husband, Jose, is the Otay Water District's president. They've also searched the homes of two former Southwestern College officials, Nicholas Alioto and John Wilson.

Investigators have interviewed the mayors of Chula Vista and National City, county supervisors and a San Diego city councilman. Jaime Bonilla, another Otay Water District board member, is also mentioned in search warrants; Bertha Lopez and Seville employees had an appointment to dine at his house.

The case has widely been publicized as a bribery investigation. Dumanis has said the officials accepted "what amounted to bribes." But only one person faces a bribery charge, Gilbane's former employee, Amigable.

Prosecutors haven't charged anyone with receiving bribes. School officials instead are charged with failing to report gifts and filing false gift disclosure forms, both felonies. Prosecutors have also leveled lesser misdemeanors, alleging the school leaders had a personal financial interest in their decisions.

The circumstances speak to the unseemly side of politics, a world where gift-giving, influence peddling and campaign donations are all routine and legal — to a point. Politicians across the county regularly receive campaign funding from lobbyists and contractors doing business with their agencies. It's how the system works.
California law allows public officials to accept up to $420 in gifts annually from businesses and people working with their agencies. The gifts have to be disclosed, and they can't be explicitly traded for someone's vote. Prosecutors say the Sweetwater officials far exceeded gift limits, taking thousands without reporting it on state forms submitted under penalty of perjury.

The case also shows how a typically unseen influence game is played. One example: Prosecutors say Southwestern College's Wilson fed inside information to one construction company, recommended the firm for a job, retired a month later and then went to work for it. No charges have been filed related to it, though Dumanis has said more charges could be forthcoming in the case.

Prosecutors haven't disclosed everything that they uncovered while executing search warrants in December. But the evidence they have released so far connecting the gifts to favorable votes is largely circumstantial.

Weeks before Gilbane/Seville got that Sweetwater contract, Quiñones went to Seville's president for a favor. Quiñones was prepping for a bigger political stage and wanted a resume builder.

She asked Rene Flores Sr. to contact then-Assemblyman Joe Coto, D-San Jose, on her behalf, court records show, and sent Flores her resume. "[H]ope you can help me with this... it is really important to me," she wrote.

Flores forwarded the resume to Coto, according to emails released by prosecutors, telling the assemblyman he hoped he would find Quiñones "an appropriate compensated commission where she might serve the State of California." Quiñones was considering running for state office, Flores said, and hoped to raise her profile and make more public appearances.

As the vote on Gilbane/Seville neared, court records show Flores emailed Quiñones to say he was trying to set up a meeting with Coto. "And again, I want to thank you very much for your support," Flores wrote.

Quiñones replied that she could meet a couple of weeks later. "Please let me know..." she said, "and also I support those that support me!"

Questions about impropriety arose from the moment the deal with Gilbane/Seville was struck in 2007.

Nick Marinovich, a contracting expert who served on an earlier construction oversight committee, publicly questioned the school board's decision to hire Gilbane/Seville.

Marinovich had spent nearly three decades overseeing public construction projects for San Diego County. He knew how contractors were supposed to be selected — with a process free of political influence, without top executives getting involved.
But Gandara had participated and recommended Gilbane/Seville, even though another venture, Harris/Gafcon, ranked higher and was drawing good reviews as the district's current construction overseer. So Marinovich went to the board and lodged his criticism. The reaction? "Indifference," Marinovich said.

"It didn't pass the smell test," he said in a recent interview. "It was really just a gut level reaction."

Community concerns persisted. A 2008 San Diego County Taxpayers Association report urged more transparency for Sweetwater's construction hiring, noting that any questions about Gilbane/Seville could've been avoided if the district had been open about its reasons. The report noted that at least one unnamed community member was worried about possible corruption.

Gandara had repeatedly intervened in the district's selection process for construction companies. A 2009 voiceofsandiego.org investigation found that lower-ranked firms were routinely picked. One law firm, Garcia, Calderon & Ruiz, was hired even though it rated last out of four firms. The internal rankings were often disregarded, the investigation concluded, making it difficult to determine why the district hired the firms it did. Both Seville and the law firm have since had their work suspended. Seville says it isn't a target of the D.A.'s investigation.

Concerned parents routinely went to board meetings throughout 2009 and 2010, criticizing the board for its oversight of construction spending and for accepting campaign donations from companies working for the district. One parent, Stewart Payne, said he thought the board's behavior was strange enough that he went to the FBI in early 2011. Then he and other parents went to the district attorney.

"I just said: Something's wrong here, I don't know what it is, but something's not making sense," Payne said. "Something was just wrong."

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

DA: 5 Charged in School Corruption Case

Skimming money does undermine an agency, but often it's a small potatoes operation. The folks who don't skim from the agencies, but subvert the entire agency for their personal goals take vastly larger sums legally.

For example, Diane Crosier and Dan Puplava at the San Diego County of Education benefit from a corrupt system, and the SDCOE board and Superintendent Randy Ward do not even require Diane Crosier to report gifts.

SDCOE is protected by the news media in San Diego ever since Emily Alpert was forced to stop her investigation of SDCOE.

Investigators call it a corrupt, "pay-to-play" bribery scheme

By Sarah Grieco
NBC San Diego
Jan 4, 2012

Charges have been filed against five current and former Sweetwater school officials in a South Bay corruption case, according to District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.

Former Superintendent Jesus Gandara, former board member Greg Sandoval, current board members Pearl Quinones and Arlie Ricasa and construction contracting executive Henry Amigable have all been charged with crimes.

Felony charges include bribery, perjury and influencing elected officials. Misdemeanor charges were also filed

If convicted, the maximum sentence would be four to seven years.

Gandara had the most charges with seven counts of felony and three misdemeanors. Amigable, whose company also allegedly made campaign contributions to board members, received two felony charges.

The yearlong investigation began when the DA office received multiple anonymous tips on the behavior of the past and present school board members.

Investigators are calling it a corrupt, "pay-to-play" bribery scheme, involving South Bay schools and college boards.

Dumanis said the case is believed to be the largest of its kind in San Diego County.

"For years, public officials regularly accepted what amounted to bribes in exchange for their votes on multi-million dollar construction projects," she said. “This case is outrageous and shameful.”

There are allegations of lavish meals, $1,000 bottles of wine, Southwest airline tickets, Lakers and Rose Bowl tickets that helped win multi-million dollar contracts for school construction.

Investigators from the DA’s office searched seven homes, including those of Quinones, Ricasa and Board Member Bertha Lopez. Investigators took computers, calendars and other records.

Dumanis repeatedly said during a press conference that the investigation is ongoing and additional charges or defendants could be possible.

The arraignment for Gandara, Sandoval, Ricasa, Quinones and Amigable is scheduled for Jan. 13

School Officials Accepted Thousands in Gifts: DA
Lavish meals, sporting events tickets and more given to school board officials
By Paul Krueger
NBC San Diego
Dec 28, 2011

The homes of three school board members were raided Dec. 20 by DA investigators.

Investigators are calling it a corrupt, "pay-to-play" bribery scheme, involving South Bay schools and college boards.

Allegations of lavish meals, $100 bottles of wine, and Rose Bowl tickets that helped win multi-million dollar contracts for school construction.

According to search warrants made public today, one school board member got tickets to Padres, Chargers, Angels and Lakers games -- sometimes in the stadium's private suite -- plus two nights at the Biltmore Hotel in Pasadena and tickets to the Rose Bowl.

Last week, investigators from the District Attorney's office searched seven homes. The targets include three members of the Sweetwater Union High School District: Pearl Quinones, Bertha Lopez and Arlie Ricasa.

Investigators took computers, calendars and other records, but would not disclose the reason for those raids.

These search warrants, unsealed Tuesday in Superior Court, provide new details about an alleged felony bribery scheme involving a construction company executive who pursued school administrators and board members with gifts, in return for their approval of school construction projects.

One investigator calls it a "corrupt pay-for-play culture" that tarnished the Sweetwater Union School District, and Southwest College, in Chula Vista.

At the center of the alleged scam is Henry Amigable, who worked for Gilbane/SGI construction management.

Investigators say he spent thousands of dollars on food and wine for school board members, including a $1,700 restaurant meal.

Amigable's company also allegedly made campaign contributions to board members, to get the inside track on business, and spent more than $2,000 on theater tickets and dinner for South Bay board members and administrators, including former Sweetwater superintendent Jesus Gandara.

Gilbane Construction also allegedly paid a $1,000 beauty pageant fee, for Gandara's daughter, and a $500 beauty pageant scholarship for the daughter of former Sweetwater board president, Greg Sandoval.

Sandoval allegedly got those tickets to sporting events in San Diego and Los Angeles, and the New Year's eve hotel stay in Pasadena.

According to the search warrant, Sandoval "had his hand out for gifts so often, even employees from the construction company remarked that he has no shame."

Monday, January 02, 2012

Judge finds CVESD retaliated against Joyce Singer Abrams for union activity

A recent PERB decision finds:

"In addition to all of the above circumstantial evidence of unlawful motive, there is also direct evidence of unlawful motive in the statements made by [Larry]Cunningham...If Cunningham had been misquoted or misunderstood, the District could have called him to testify; indeed, the record was left open for that very purpose. But the District did nothing."

From the Joyce Abrams' November 23, 2011 PERB decision against Chula Vista
Elementary School District:



November 23, 2011


California Teachers Association by Brenda B. Sutton-Wills, Attorney, for Joyce
Singer Abrams;

Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost by Susan B. Winkelman, Attorney, for Chula Vista Elementary School District.

Before Martinez, Chair; McKeag and Dowdin Calvillo, Members

November 23, 2011

...Accordingly, the Board adopts
the proposed decision as the
decision of the Board itself, as
supplemented by the following
discussion of the District’s

For reasons explained below,
however, the Board does not
adopt the AL’s proposed order
and notice...

At all relevant times here,
members of the BTSA Advisory
Board were: (1) Lebron; (2) CVE
President Peg Myers (Myers); (3)
Katy Croy, a Point Loma
Nazarene University
representative; and (4) Principal
Tom Glover.
In another part of the record the
composition of the BTSA Advisory
Board is
described as including Kathleen
Fernandez, a teacher...

Abrams’ 2007-2008 Term and
Reapplication for the 2008-2009

Abrams served as a BTSA
Induction Program SP for the
eighth consecutive school year
during the 2007-2008 term She
entered into an SP agreement for
that term on or about
September 10, 2007, agreeing to
adhere to the SP agreement and
the BTSA SP Guidelines.

The BTSA Advisory Board met on
July 16, 2008. The Advisory Board
reviewed the
reapplications and the logs kept
by the SP’s documenting how
often they met with their PT’s.
The Advisory Board determined
that 14 of the SP re-applicants,
including Abrams, had not met
the one-hour per week meeting

Lebron testified about the August
11, 2008, meeting with Abrams as
Q Did you tell her that the logs
were incorrect and that you
would fix them?
A Not that I would fix them. I told
her that, yes, they were

Sometime thereafter,
Lebron met with Cruz for
approximately 45 minutes to
review the logs of these re-
Lebron testified that after
reviewing the logs with Cruz, she
continued to believe that the
Advisory Board’s original
determination was correct. The
Cabinet, however, ultimately
reinstated all but two of the 14
re-applicants who initially had
been told by the Advisory
Board that they had not been
renewed for the 2008-2009
term. Cruz testified that Dennis
Gascon (Gascon) was the only
other SP besides Abrams
who was not reinstated by the

The fifth qualification listed in
the BTSA SP Guidelines, which
requires the SP to be either a
permanent or retired teacher
in the District, was omitted
from the Notice.

By letter dated September 17,
2008, Cruz informed Abrams that
she was not selected
for the 2008-2009 school year.
The letter contained no
explanation of the basis for the

Abrams filed level I and level II
grievances on October 3, 2008,
and a second level II
grievance on October 14, 2008.
By letter dated October 16, 2008,
Cruz dismissed Abrams’
grievances on the ground that,
as a retired teacher, Abrams
was no longer covered by the

Myers had earlier decided not to
file a grievance on behalf of the 14
BTSA SPs whose
reapplications had been denied
because it was her understanding
that the District was going to follow
through with her recommendation
that they all be reinstated.

On November 10, 2008, at 9:41 a.
m., Cunningham left the following
telephone message
on Abrams’ answering machine:

Joyce, this is Larry again. I’ve
been in LA for the last five days,
but give me a, give me a call on my
cell phone. It’s probably the
easiest place to get a hold of me,
[phone number omitted]. I
talked to Lowell [Billings] and Tom
[Cruz], and it really comes
down to the point that they just
wanted to go in a different
direction. I mean, they felt that,
you know, you’ve always been
very negative about what the
District did and where they were
going and what direction they were
going in, so they just felt they
wanted to go in a different
direction. And so that’s what they
told me about it. So, if you want to
discuss it further, give me a call,
but that’s what I got from it. Talk to
you later. Bye.

On November 12, 2008, Abrams
spoke to Cunningham by
telephone. Admitted into
evidence at the hearing was a
note Abrams made memorializing
their conversation:

I stated that I had given my heart
and soul to the CVESD for 39
years. That, in all of those years of
employment, not once was
there a reference to my negativity
in any evaluation that I had
received. He said he thought that
it was in reference to my
association and activism in the
union, CVE.

I stated I thought there were laws
against being retaliated against
because of my union participation.

I have been singled out and
discriminated against.

...At the hearing, Cruz testified
that the Cabinet did not renew
Abrams’ SP position solely
because of her interpersonal
skills. In response to a question
from the ATJ inquiring into the
nature of the Cabinet’s concern
about Abrams’ interpersonal skills,
Cruz testified in pertinent part:

So the five executive directors and
the superintendent are actually
in those classrooms on a regular
basis. And it was from, many of
those folks had brought up
concerns about her positive
nature on
matters, how she, her outlook and
support of the District. And
there were concerns that she
may not be conveying the kinds of
messages to our new teachers
that we would prefer, because
her interpersonal skills were
abrasive and short whenever
others had interaction with her

During the 2007-2008 school
year, however, no individuals at
the Cabinet level had
observed Abrams in either her
teaching or SP role.
Prior to the 2007-2008 school
year, two of these individuals had
observed Abrams in
her classroom on occasion. As
there is no dispute that Abrams
was renewed for the 2007-2008
school year, it must be concluded
that whatever classroom
observations there might have
prior to the 2007-2008 school
year, none were found to be

When asked to elaborate on
Abrams’ interpersonal skills during
cross-examination, Cruz further

As far as, and I’m using global
generalizations, she didn’t seem
to be happy or content with the
School District, critical about
the District about management
this, or principal this, or
teachers this.

It just seemed that Joyce was
not a happy positive person in
her interactions with the adults.

In contrast to Cruz’s testimony that
Abrams "was not a happy positive
person in her interactions with
adults," the direct documentary
and testimonial evidence on
this point supports the
opposite conclusion as a
factual matter. Performance
evaluations date-stamped in
Human Resources on January 5,
2006, September 21, 2004, June
24, 2002, September 5,
2000, May 20, 1998, and June 1,
1994 were received into

Emily Claypool (Claypool) was
Abrams’ PT in 2000. Claypool
testified that Abrams
was friendly, supportive,
knowledgeable and available. She
considered Abrams to be her
mentor, and a strong advocate for

The ALJ concluded that the
preponderance of the evidence
showed that the District had an
unlawful motive in denying
Abrams' SP reapplication for the
2008-2009 school year within
the meaning of EERA section
3543.5, subdivision (a). In its
exceptions, the District contends
that Abrams did not meet her
prima facie burden; that the AL’s
proposed decision is not
supported by the evidentiary
record; and that the ALJ’s
proposed remedy is not

Here, as the ALJ found, there is
ample circumstantial evidence
of unlawful motive.
Regarding the timing of the
adverse action, the District is
correct that Abrams had been
involved in her union for a long
time without incident. There may
not have been a single
triggering event. As the ALJ
observed, Abrams continued to
serve as a member of CVE’s
board of directors until just prior to
the denial of her reapplication. It is
worth noting that the
first time the District denied a
reapplication of Abrams was
immediately upon Abrams’
retirement and loss of active union
membership and membership on
the CVE board of directors.

In addition to all of the above
circumstantial evidence of unlawful
motive, there is also
direct evidence of unlawful motive
in the statements made by

On top of all this, Abrams testified without contradiction that District board member
Cunningham, explaining the District’s denial of her reapplication, told her that the District found her "very negative," and he thought "it was in reference to [her] association and [her] activism with the Union." If Cunningham had been misquoted or misunderstood, the District could have called him to testify; indeed, the record was left open for that very purpose. But the District did nothing.

Even as hearsay, Cunningham’s statements to Abrams were admissible to corroborate
the other evidence of retaliation. (PERB Reg. 32176.)2

Furthermore, as admissions of a party, the statements are also admissible as independent evidence of retaliation. (Evidence Code, § 1220.)
In short, the preponderance of evidence shows that the District denied Abrams’
reapplication to be a support provider because of her union activity, and for no other reason.

The District is therefore found to have retaliated against Abrams in violation of EERA section 3 543.5(a), as alleged in the PERB complaint

PERB Decision No. 2221 Case No. LA-CE-5289-E