South Bay school officials arraigned for bribery, other charges

15 currently face charges

CHULA VISTA, Calif. - More than a dozen current and former South Bay school officials accused of accepting gifts in exchange for votes on construction contracts were arraigned at the Chula Vista courthouse Friday.

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.

All of the 15 defendants pleaded not guilty.

At Friday's court hearing, Judge Ana Espana agreed to unseal some 4,000 pages of grand jury transcripts related to the case. Attorneys for both sides will have 30 days to go through the documents to be redacted.

Former Sweetwater Union High School District Superintendent Jesus Gandara, former trustee Greg Sandoval and current board members Arlie Ricasa and Pearl Quinones were charged more than 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, San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis alleged.

In March 2012, construction company executive Henry Amigable admitted to 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. He was sentenced to three years probation.

On Friday morning, Chopra appeared alongside his attorney. It was his first public appearance in court since his abrupt resignation from Southwestern College in December 2010.

Defense attorneys were not happy with the decision Friday to release the grand jury transcripts.

"We're upset because they're going to be released to the public and the public is basically going to know exactly what these witnesses said during the grand jury. What's a problem for us is that there were no lawyers to cross-examine them, which means they were able to say whatever without any type of objects," said attorney Marc Carlos, who represents Pearl Quinones.

"We're going to go all the way through this and we're going to win. We're going to fight and we're going to win this case because I'm innocent," Quinones added.

The next court date is a readiness conference scheduled for July 17. A jury trial date has been scheduled for February 18, 2014.

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