San Diego D.A. probes school construction contracts
John Langeler, Fox 5 San Diego/L.A. Times | http://lat.ms/t9P7XR
December 23, 2011 | 10:49 am :: The San Diego district attorney's office raided the homes of several school officials and construction company employees this week as part of a months-long corruption probe.
Investigators searched the homes of three Sweetwater Union High School board members and four other homes of people with ties to construction companies, Southwestern College and the Sweetwater District. The investigation has been underway since at least April, an official at Southwestern College said.
Southwestern College Board of Trustees Chairwoman Norma Hernandez said investigators have been talking to the board about "construction contracts."
Southwestern College's board and its administration underwent significant turnover earlier in the year amid accusations of corruption involving its former president and potential contractors.
At a meeting Thursday, the board said it was conducting an internal audit of Proposition R construction projects.
"We've detected problems in the bidding process and contract procurement," Hernandez said, declining to elaborate on what the internal audit revealed.
The college released a statement saying that it was implementing several changes to its internal procedures, including a requirement that two college officials review cost proposals on projects and banning employees associated with construction or contracts from accepting gifts or meals.
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, San Diego Union Tribune | http://bit.ly/sGFJK1
A district attorney's staffer at the home of Henry Amigable, a former Sweetwater district and Southwestern College contractor. Ashly McGlone
9:42 a.m., Dec. 20, 2011 (Updated 7:39 p.m. ) :: 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 of interest
- Those whose homes were searched
- College changes contracting methods to foil impropriety
- With Gandara gone, attorney could be next
- Complaints preceded raids on South County school officials
- Southwestern College conducting internal investigation
Gallery: South Bay raids
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.
Staff writer Aaron Burgin contributed to this report.