5 charged with felonies in school corruption probe

SAN DIEGO -- Four current and former school officials and a construction company employee are being charged with felonies in connection with a "pay to play" corruption investigation, prosecutors said Wednesday.

CORRECTION: A photo of educator Bertha Lopez mistakenly appeared as one of the people charged following the Sweetwater Union High School District investigation. Bertha Lopez was not charged.

Those charged include board members and the former superintendent of the Sweetwater Union High School District, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said at a morning news conference.  

"The widespread corruption we uncovered in the South Bay during our investigation was widespread and pervasive," Dumanis said. "For years, public officials regularly accepted what amounted to bribes in exchange for their votes on multi-million-dollar construction projects."

They are being charged with felonies including bribery, perjury, filing false documents and influencing an elected official.

The defendants include former Sweetwater Superintendent Jesus Gandara, current Sweetwater board members Arlie Ricasa and Pearl Quinones, and former trustee Greg Sandoval. Henry Amigable, a contractor with a construction company hired by the school district was also charged.

Prosecutors allege that the school district officials received tens of thousands of dollars worth of meals, trips and entertainment from construction companies trying to get contracts on voter-approved school bond projects. The gifts included expensive meals, concert tickets, theater tickets, Rose Bowl tickets, Los Angeles Lakers playoff tickets, airline tickets and a trip to Napa Valley, Dumanis said.

Shortly after receiving the gifts, the board members voted to approve the contracts, according to the District Attorney's Office.

Dumanis said the investigation was ongoing and additional charges and defendants were possible.

Sweetwater Interim Superintendent Dr. Edward Brand denied "widespread corruption" exists within the district at a press conference Wednesday afternoon.

"I believe that if there is anything wrong with the district, it's localized," Brand explained.

He added that Sweetwater had immediately ended its dealings with SGI, the construction management firm that once employed Amigable.

Former Superintendent Dr. Jesus Gandara has retained former District Attorney Paul Pfingst.  Wednesday, Pfingst admitted his client recieved gifts from Amigable, but said there was a good reason they were not reported.

"We think we can provide documentation that they were reimbursed," Pfingst said.  "By reimbursing the gift-givers, Dr. Gandara did not break the law."

If the defendants are convicted on all charges, they face fines and sentences ranging from four to seven years in state prison.

The defendants are scheduled to be arraigned on Jan. 13.