New judge assigned to South Bay corruption case; Arraignments delayed

Multiple school officials face charges

CHULA VISTA, Calif. - A judge was assigned Friday to oversee the case involving more than a dozen current and former South County school officials accused of accepting gifts in exchange for votes on construction contracts, resulting in postponement of arraignments for the defendants.

South Bay Criminal Presiding Judge Stephanie Sontag assigned the case to Judge Ana Espana, who rescheduled the arraignments for April 12. On that date, Espana will rule on a motion on whether or not to seal the grand jury transcript.

Among the 15 defendants charged in two indictments are current and former officials from the Sweetwater Union High School and San Ysidro school districts and the Southwestern Community College District.

Former Sweetwater Union High School District Superintendent Jesus Gandara, former trustee Greg Sandoval and current board members Arlie Ricasa and Pearl Quinones were charged a year ago in connection with the alleged "pay for play" scheme. Each faces between four and seven years in state prison if convicted.

Also charged in indictments handed down in December are current Sweetwater board members James Cartmill and Bertha Lopez, as well as San Ysidro School District Superintendent Manuel Paul and former Southwestern College Superintendent and President Raj Chopra.

Cartmill, Lopez, Paul and Chopra also are charged with bribery, perjury and other counts.

For years, the public officials regularly accepted what amounted to bribes -- trips, fancy dinners -- in exchange for their votes on multimillion-dollar construction projects, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis alleged.

In March of last year, construction company executive Henry Amigable admitted a misdemeanor charge that he provided gifts, meals and tickets for entertainment events to district officials to influence the school board's decisions on construction contracts.

Where to prosecute the defendants has been a point of contention for the District Attorney's Office. It originally filed the cases in San Diego because the alleged crimes occurred in various locations, not just South County. In January, San Diego Superior Court Judge Timothy Walsh transferred the case from San Diego to Chula Vista.

The District Attorney's Office filed a request to move the cases back to San Diego, arguing it had already been assigned to a judge who was familiar with the matter. The office also argued unsuccessfully that most of the courtrooms at the Chula Vista courthouse were too small to handle large numbers of defendants, lawyers, reporters and members of the public.

Last week, Walsh declined the request, explaining that he transferred the case because he believed that South County was the most appropriate venue since the defendants are from that area.

The postponement of Friday's arraignment was due to several factors, including various motions filed by the defense attorneys, as well as more time needed to review documents.

Defense attorney James Fitzpatrick, who represents Paul, said there are more than 60,000 pages of grand jury transcripts that everyone -- including the new judge -- has to review.

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