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Cafeteria thefts, corruption allegations, mystery meetings and a
money tree. To understand all the headlines, start here.
The corruption investigation and scandal that’s engulfed the Sweetwater Union High School District, which educates 42,000 South Bay children, has been slowly unfolding for months.
Most recently, prosecutors charged four current and former district officials with felonies, alleging that they failed to disclose lavish gifts and traded their influence for expensive meals, show tickets and campaign donations. A contractor has also been charged with bribery.
But the scandal has been building for years, and it’s not just about one person.
Taken together, the allegations paint a picture of a mismanaged district, one that’s rife with problems beyond its elected leadership. Prosecutors have alleged that corruption was systemic. Here’s a guide to understanding exactly what’s happening at the public agency that oversees middle and high schools for students who hail from National City to San Ysidro.
Start here. Our recent story tells you where trouble began.
When the school board made a 2007 decision to hire a construction company to oversee the district’s $644 million school construction program, the work went to a firm that had bestowed its largesse on school officials.
From my story:
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.
Current board members Arlie Ricasa and Pearl Quiñones, former board member Greg Sandoval and Gandara all face multiple felony charges of failing to disclose gifts from contractors. One former Gilbane contractor, Henry Amigable, has been charged with bribery.
But the headlines don’t stop there. Here’s a summary of the top storylines in the ongoing scandal.
• The Superintendent: District contractors were invited to a March 2011 bridal shower for Gandara’s daughter, U-T San Diego reported. The invitation said a money tree would be available, a centerpiece that allows attendees to clip on money as a donation.
Gandara also came under scrutiny for charging hundreds of meals to a district credit card, despite being paid a monthly meal allowance. Gandara was later fired by the district, which handed him a $416,000 severance.
• Mystery Meetings: A public relations consultant and former Chula Vista councilman, Scott Alevy, charged the district for meeting with people who said they never met with him. He also billed for volunteer work he did as chairman of a nonprofit foundation that assists the school district.
• Food Trouble: Sweetwater’s former food services director, Nancy Stewart, was supplying the district’s cafeterias with brands marketed by her own outside company, the U-T San Diego reported last summer.
And an internal review found that at least $500,000 had been stolen from district cafeterias. Six workers have been placed on leave and Stewart has resigned.
• College Contracts: Southwestern College has been drawn into the scandal, too. The Chula Vista community college district halted two projects and cut ties with two companies after investigators searched the homes of former officials Nicholas Alioto and John Wilson.
Prosecutors say 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 that. Alioto traveled to Napa Valley with Amigable weeks before his construction company won work from Southwestern.
Want to follow the scandal as it continues unfolding? Here are four storylines to watch.
• Are more criminal charges coming? When Dumanis leveled charges, she said more could be forthcoming. That is likely to depend, in part, on what her investigators found when they executed search warrants at the end of December.
• A public-interest attorney, Cory Briggs, sued the district last week. He’s attempting to force the cancelation of more than $40 million in construction contracts with four firms that gave unreported gifts to school officials — not just Gilbane/Seville.
• Meanwhile, keep an eye on this: Three current school officials and a former board member targeted by prosecutors want the district to pay $1.3 million for their legal fees, U-T San Diego reports.
• And finally, what did the attorney Sweetwater hired (and paid with taxpayer money) find when he audited Alevy’s bills and discrepancies? That report has so far been withheld from the public, though the district will consider whether to release it Monday.
Rob Davis is a senior reporter at voiceofsandiego.org. You can contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0529.
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