The South Bay's Sweetwater Union High School District and Southwestern Community College Districts are dealing with allegations of conflict-of-interest and "pay to play" practices.
December 26, 2011 1:18 p.m.
Guest: Ashly McGlone, Watchdog reporter, San Diego Union Tribune
Related Story: Sweetwater In Hot Water
ST. JOHN: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Alison St. John sitting in for Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Monday, December 26th. Hundreds of millions of closet in public money are at play in the south bay as contractors bid for school bond construction money. Investigations into pay to play arrangements between construction contractors and leaders of Sweetwater school district and southwestern community college came to light last week. We're joined by Ashley McGlone, a watch dog reporter with the Union Tribune. Thanks very much for coming in.
MCGLONE: It's a pleasure. Thanks.
ST. JOHN: So the assistant district attorney has conducted several raids on south bay school leaders' homes. Who is being investigated and what are they look figure for?
MCGLONE: They've executed search warrants seven different homes. Bertha Lopez, pearl Quinonez, Oliver Casa, and three former southwestern college administrator, Greg Sandoval, John Wilson, and Nicholas Alioto. Then you've got a contractor who's worked for both districts whose home was also searched.
ST. JOHN: Now, even though the DA won't give us any detail, I guess the documents are sealed for a few more days, you have discovered that there were existing complaints against the Sweetwater trustee; is that right?
MCGLONE: That's right. Over the last year, there's been a mounting pressure from the community who's become very vocal and attentive to the business dealings of the district, both -- primarily under Jesus Gandara, who was the former superintendent ousted in June. They saw a huge influx in contractor conations during the election period, which is completely legal as long as they disclose those things. But then the same board members go on to vote and award contracts to the vendors who have given them tins of thousands of dollars sometimes. And there's concerns about conflicts of interest, and how can you award a contract and be impartial when they've given you so much money?
ST. JOHN: You're saying one of the people who were investigated was a contractor. And yet it was legal, the amount of money, but a hundred thousand dollars going into campaigns right?
MCGLONE: Right. So the concerns may be the things they're didn't claim and report to the county, receipt of other gifts and maybe chargers tickets or trips, things of that nature that weren't publicly disclosed. Again, the search warrants will be unsealed this week, and maybe we'll have a better picture of what they're going after.
ST. JOHN: For people who have been following events in the Southbay, the former superintendent is the person who's been in the news the most. In the news for misuse of public funds yet his house was not among those searched. Why do you think that?
MCGLONE: That's a good question. His name was notably left off the list and the search warrants and the community wants to know why. He was encouraging the relationships between the board and the contractors. He invited several contractors to his daughter's bridal shower, and he himself said that was evidence of his leadership style. So yeah, we're not sure if that's still on the list, if somehow he kind of evaded their target at this point.
ST. JOHN: How did he leave? So in June after a series of watch dog reports and public pressure and community outrage, the board went into closed session to do his evaluation. And they went into closed session for several hours into the night, the community was waiting, and they came out to announce they had reached a separation agreement. He didn't technically resign, he wasn't Texically fired. He walked away with a severance, close to $500,000. And they now have a new superintendent who's taken over.
ST. JOHN: You talked about community outrage. How did that play into the investigation? Some of the complaints were filed two or three years ago. It's been a long time.
MCGLONE: Absolutely. A lot of people see this as a long time coming, and they're thrilled to see the District Attorney is making kind of a -- they're not talking much at this point, but they have publicly made the moves into these people's homes. They had to have a justifiable cause to do that. Complaints have been raised at the board, and a lot of people in the community have taken their concerns, what they felt were falling on deaf ears with the board members to the District Attorney's office, looking for action, looking for interest, and these are their taxpayer dollars that are being spent, and they feel like there were concerning issues going on.
ST. JOHN: How many dollars are we talking about?
MCGLONE: For Sweetwater there was a 4 hundred 44 million bond cashes, and the community is really trusting the administrators to be responsible with those dollars. And obviously they have not been content with the way it's been managed at this point. Especially with southwestern, the corner law project has been delayed for quite a while. They had a formal ground breaking, but I understand that construction has not begun, and it's been delayed over a year now.
ST. JOHN: But it's not just the community that's been complaining. There were some suits filed by other construction companies that were feeling something was amiss here about the way contracts were being awarded.
MCGLONE: I know in Sweetwater, Harr, construction, what was constructing southwestern high and southwestern middle under proposition O, they were terminated. They felt that they were wrongfully terminated. They filed suit citing a breech of contract. How much those are intertwined with the DA's investigation remains to be seen. When they unseal those warrants this week, maybe we'll know more. There's also a lawsuit brewing with the district's formal general council. One of their partners had sued another partner, Bonnie Garcia, who was the district's regional county in severity water, citing that the money with the partnership had been improperly spent to donate to campaign elections, to garner favor with certain elected board members. That was mentioned in the lawsuit.
ST. JOHN: So it sounds like there's been a lot of money involved in electing board members to the school district and the community college. Have the board members all been incumbents for a long time?
MCGLONE: Yes, at least the Sweetwater, there's some long time incumbents there. Greg Sandoval was the former board member was there for I think four terms before he decided not to run again last fall. Southwestern, they had seen -- last fall, they had a big game changer. The majority of their board did not regain election, which prompted their superintendent to promptly resign
ST. JOHN: Yeah, there was some controversy there too.
MCGLONE: Right after that. So I know their community has been highly encouraged with a lot of the changes they've brought. And they have been open about we want to end the pay to play perception that is out there regarding contracts in our college and the Southbay as a whole.
ST. JOHN: I noticed they responded at the community college very rapidly last week and said they were changing some of the rules of how to award contracts. Has Sweetwater done anything along those lines?
MCGLONE: The most recent board meeting in December, they were set to vote to limit campaign contributions to $500, which would have been a huge change
ST. JOHN: What's the limit and
MCGLONE: There is no limit. So a lot of agencies have taken the initiative to limit it just to avoid the perception of conflicts of interest and pay to play. The Sweetwater board was set to vote on that, and then the motion just -- there was never a motion taken, it just flew under the radar. The community wondered why. Why wasn't there even a vote taken on this? The southwestern board again, they haven't necessarily set limits in place, but they have been open about wanting the change the ways of the old leadership
ST. JOHN: We're talking about Ashley McGlone who's been covering the story about the south bay, both the Sweetwater district school, and southwestern community college. It's interesting because in the article that was in the paper about this, every single person who had investigators come to their house appears to have participated in some of these free lunches that Gandara, the former superintendent gave. He was quite well known for throwing big lunches to, I guess, to promote community involvement.
MCGLONE: Like I said, he was definitely into board members building relationships outside of the professional arena, even with contractor, both potential and current. All three board members, Bertha, Arly, and Pearl had dined with the superintendent on multiple occasions. That was definitely a part of the previous leadership style, as he said
ST. JOHN: And do you think this is something that is like a south bay issue? Here we have the two very large educational establishments with millions of dollars in public money to hand out.
>> Right. When I first started reporting on some of these things, a lot of what I was told by people said this happens all the time down here in the south bay. You should not be taking interest in this or raising these questions. The community should not be concerned. This is normal. But what they've learned is just because autonormal for the Southbay doesn't mean it's normal or possibly even legal. And that's the hope they raised with the District Attorney's interest. Maybe they'll finally be set straight on some of these questionable practices.
ST. JOHN: Do you get the feeling that whatever comes out of this -- let me ask you, what are the questions in your mind about what you're going to be looking at when documents are unsealed later this week.
MCGLONE: We're eager to see -- I'm not sure if there'll be a unique case to each individual, what case they made to have the right to go into their home. How much is Gandara a part of this, what was Jim Cartmill left off the list?
ST. JOHN: Who's he?
MCGLONE: The long time incumbent of the Sweetwater board as well. And he was not included in the District Attorney's raids to date. So we're Rio Grander to see that. A lot of people, Bertha Lopez, she was a very frequent critic of Jesus Gandara, and the community had come to see her as her voice. A lot of people are wondering why she was included. She did dine with the superintendent, which they've reported. Maybe when the search warrants are unsealed, we'll get some more clarity on what direction they're heading. There will be misdemeanor charge, felonies pursued? We're not sure.
ST. JOHN: There is how much politics in the Southbay on these boards any. Is there some question about whether there might be an agenda about who is being investigated?
MCGLONE: Right. Exactly. There's so many questions at this point. Like I said, I know the community for the Sweetwater community, the board did vote. They reached a separation agreement with Gandara under a lot of pressure. The real problem remains. If you've still got these board members who are taking the votes and making the executive decisions, they're still there. Letting these limits just go by even though the community is very much in favor it.
ST. JOHN: Does southwestern not have limits on their campaign contributions?
MCGLONE: They have been very open about wanting to change the perception. I know they have increased oversight of how contracts are awarded. I don't know if they set any formal limits.
ST. JOHN: Do you know whether other school districts -- the thing is, bond money is such a valuable thing for a construction company. Public bond money is one of the few big pots of money available for building and construction contracts. Do you think this might be an issue for other school districts around the county?
MCGLONE: Definitely, below there's a huge influx of cash, especially during tough economic times, schools specifically, and community colleges are facing some serious budget cuts from the state, so this is really a huge cash flow during a tough economic time. The communities are entrusting these officials with their tax dollars voting to increase the dollars for the betterment of the community. When that's not happening, or projects are stalled month and months on end, when they see pay to play scenarios, contractors bidding on opportunities for wine and tours up in Napa valley, and then the same contractors winning a contract the next month, they have some concerns and want to see some changes with that sort of a practice.
ST. JOHN: The new superintendent who took over after Jesus Gandara was left, Ed Brant, he has warned we cannot assume just because somebody is being investigated that they're necessarily guilty. And it is a difficult one to tease out. If there are no limits on campaign contribution, a lot of it is about appearance of unethical behavior. What would you say from grand jury report suggest the most egregious?
MCGLONE: What has not ended up in the paper. What ends up in the paper is only what we can fully completely vet and improve. It doesn't mean we're not receiving tons of tips from various sources who are unwilling to go on the record. It's obviously what's not in the paper and hasn't been reported is the most concerning. And again, we have really high standards with what we put in the paper. Based on what I've heard, there's clearly a culture that's been developed, there's administrators in 1st†District who are board members in another, and vice versa. That would be illegal. Accepting gifts, not reporting them, accepting gifts under the pretense that you're going to maintain a contract. This is just what I'm hearing at this point. Whether it's just hearsay or something that can be criminally punished remains to be the seen. But I know the community is hopeful that will see the light of day. And we'll be able to fully report those things as they come.
ST. JOHN: It feels like there's just been so much bubbling down in the Southbay for long. What would you hope to see resolved in the next few days?
MCGLONE: The search warrants being unsealed is going to be a big thing. Depending on what's in there, the affidavits. What case have they made? What are they investigating? Is it purely construction? Is it not? Again, I'm not sure how much we'll know. It might still be months out when they're actually able to move forward with any sort of prosecution. Who is a witness. I don't know what'll be outlined in the search warrants but it'll be very interesting to see how this develops, and the community is extremely eager. As much as I am
ST. JOHN: Yes, well, interesting story for you to be following. Thanks for coming in and filling us in.