Prop R, for Rewards at Southwestern College

When big business was selling the public on the need to approve multimillion-dollar school bonds, whose needs were they talking about? In 2008, a majority of South Bay voters agreed to open their wallets for Proposition R, a $389 million school bond for Southwestern College. But with over $120 million remaining in the bank from Proposition AA, why was additional bond money needed? A growing body of evidence indicates that the same companies that created the appetite for these million-dollar bond projects were later rewarded with lucrative contracts. How did we end up with this bond, and who’s minding the till now that we have it?

The voters approved a string of Prop R improvements, listed on the ballot as job training, earthquake retrofitting, asbestos removal, and classroom repair. Near the end of the list was “acquire, construct, repair, equip classrooms, sites, [and] facilities.” Shortly after the bond passed, the school began planning three phases of construction and reconstruction. Phase I included the “corner lot,” an elaborate $73,835,000 development of food courts and conference rooms built at one end of the campus, as well as the construction of higher education centers in eastern and western Chula Vista, for $40,977,000. Phase II called for synthetic turf, track, team rooms, and training course, for $11,231,000. And Phase III included replacing swimming pools, for $3,839,000, and tennis courts and lighting, for $4,853,000.

Mitch Thompson, a former Chula Vista city councilmember who applied to be on Southwestern’s Bond Oversight Committee, said in a recent interview, “In light of the financial crash and the reduction in total classes offered at Southwestern [this spring and summer], the basic fiduciary responsibility of the board would suggest that a prudent board should have looked at not spending a decent portion of that money.”

Southwestern’s board of trustees did not select Thompson for the Bond Oversight Committee, despite his background in overseeing bond programs, commercial real estate construction financing, and real estate development.

“School districts are set up to teach, not do facilities development,” Thompson observed.

Southwestern officials have a history of being led astray by bond money. In 2000, when college president Serafin Zasueta and political consultant Larry Remer were working to pass Proposition AA, they misused college funds to pay for a commercial and ended up being indicted and placed on probation.

Money to advocate for the passage of Proposition R came from a legal place but one that is certain to raise eyebrows. Southwestern College Foundation, traditionally considered as a funding source for student scholarships and campus organizations, gave $75,000 to the Friends of Yes on Proposition R.

Superintendent Raj Chopra, Southwestern College board member Jean Roesch, and Peter Mabrey, who now serves on the Proposition R Bond Oversight Committee, are listed on the foundation’s 2008 Form 990 as directors. Also listed as a foundation director is Dan Hom, president of the public relations firm Focuscom. Shortly after the foundation funds were transferred to Friends of Yes on Proposition R, Focuscom went to work for the campaign and Hom became its public spokesperson. In an October 2008 article in the Southwestern Sun (the campus newspaper), Hom identifies himself as the consultant for Yes on Prop R.

After Proposition R passed, Hom’s company, Focuscom, was awarded a $100,000 contract to do public relations work for Phase I of Proposition R. Focuscom was hired to keep the voters on board with the various projects and to silence opponents. Southwestern’s vice president of business and financial affairs, Nicholas Alioto, signed the letter approving the contract and indicated that there may be more Focuscom contracts for Phase II and Phase III.

In addition to the money Southwestern College Foundation gave to Prop R, companies soon to be awarded million-dollar contracts donated $224,600 to Yes on Prop R. For example, the bond company Piper Jaffray & Co. in October 2008 gave the committee $25,000. Then, according to Piper Jaffray’s website, in October 2009 the company got contracts with Southwestern for two general obligation bonds for $10.2 million and $89.8 million.

On October 2, 2008, the law firm Stradling, Yocca, Carlson & Rauth gave $5000 to Yes on Prop R. Six days later, on October 8, Southwestern’s board hired the firm “for legal services for issuance of Bonds…until all bond series have been issued.”

Likewise, BCA architects gave $5000 to Yes on Prop R. In April 2010, BCA won Southwestern’s design competition and was handed a $55 million contract to design the corner lot.

Echo Pacific Construction gave $1000 to get the bond passed, then received a $4 million contract in April of this year.

Seville Construction Services does the project management for Southwestern’s construction and reconstruction. In addition to managing the $389 million from Proposition R, Seville is managing the remainder of Southwestern’s Proposition AA money. The total comes to $500 million, according to a Seville press release. Henry Amigable is the project manager. Invoices acquired through a Public Records Act request detail Amigable’s salary and the hours he worked in February through June of this year. He is paid $165 an hour. He typically bills 160 hours a month, which totals $26,400.

Amigable appears to follow the bond money. According to a Seville press release, he joined the company in April 2009. Prior to joining Seville, Amigable worked for Gilbane Construction. He had been responsible for the oversight and management of Proposition O construction at Sweetwater Union High School District, also located in the South Bay.

Before working for Seville and Gilbane, Amigable was a senior vice president at Douglas E. Barnhart, Inc. In 2008, Balfour Beatty acquired Barnhart and formed Barnhart Balfour Beatty, which recently received a $33 million Proposition R contract.

According to the Yes on Prop R campaign statement, Gilbane Construction gave the group $10,000 and Barnhart Inc. gave $30,000.

Another person whose finances were enhanced by Southwestern’s Proposition R is John Wilson. Wilson retired in April 2009 as Southwestern College director of business and operations and became Seville’s consultant. While working for Southwestern, Wilson initiated and signed off on the contract with Seville, in which Seville made 2.7 percent of the $100 million Phase I project costs. According to Seville/Southwestern invoices, Wilson also earns $165 per hour.

During the run-up to Proposition R, Wilson had a relationship with board member Yolanda Salcido. In May 2008, the Union-Tribune reported, “Southwestern College’s board president [Raj Chopra] says that the board knows a fellow trustee [Salcido] is dating a high-ranking administrator [Wilson], but it has not asked her to recuse herself from votes that affect his pay or duties.”

Wilson oversaw development of Prop AA projects. Salcido and Wilson also played important roles packaging Proposition R. An August 2008 Union-Tribune article reported, “Next week, the board is scheduled to consider putting a property tax increase on South County’s November ballot to fund $389 million in college construction projects based on work led by Wilson.”

David Krogh is a member of the Bond Oversight Committee, charged with watching the expenditure of bond money. Members of the committee work without compensation. Minutes from one meeting report that Krogh asked about ethics and conflict-of-interest policies. The minutes from the same meeting indicate that Southwestern’s vice president of business and financial affairs, Nicholas Alioto, checked with attorneys and found that committee members should have filled out Statements of Economic Interest when the committee first began meeting. Alioto would be getting these forms to committee members. A Public Records Act request for the forms was made on July 27, 2010. On August 19, Chris Bender, the chief of communications at Southwestern, wrote in an email, “It has been determined that the Prop R Oversight Committee is not a required reporting body for the purposes of Form 700 [Statement of Economic Interest] filing.”

In a recent interview, Krogh said he thinks he recalls filling out a Statement of Economic Interest. Krogh also says that he asks a lot of questions about the bond work at the meetings. On the whole, Krogh believes that information has been made available to him promptly. He also believes that Alioto has been very active in obtaining competitive bids.

On the other hand, committee member Joe Casillas says he hasn’t been asked to fill out a Statement of Economic Interest. He has served as a planning commissioner, a housing advisory commissioner, and in many other positions that all required filing a Form 700. In contrast to other committees he’s served on, Casillas says the Bond Oversight Committee often has presentations that are “nothing but fluff.” Casillas expressed frustration with the committee’s lack of power. “There isn’t really a damn thing that the committee can actually do,” he says.

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This is an EXCELLENT story. Well done!

One aspect puzzles me -- how can a charitable foundation (presumably a 501(c)3 charity) give money to help pass a school bond? That's politics, and contributions for political causes are not deductible.

Surely this can't be right. Even Larry Remer would not make this "error." Perhaps the foundation does not take deductible contributions -- perhaps it's not a charitable foundation (it IS possible).

Can someone explain this?

Reply #1 Great Question!

Just one more reason to give the current SWC Board members the boot!

It is now time for a change and past time for some public education on how the big bucks end up in the hands of folks that donate BIG; instead of making SWC the best it can be academically!

Hello Mr. Rider, on the tax form 990 for 501(c) 3 filings, there is a section for money spent on lobbying. Thanks for the compliment, Susan

This article is well written and well researched. Thank you!

Now I understand why the incumbent Governing Board Members at Southwestern College are fighting so hard to suppress dissent on campus and to control the media with small "happy news" articles from Mr. Bender's PR office at the college. There is a lot of money at stake here, and a lot of pockets being lined from this Prop R Bond measure, and it is WE the taxpayers that will be stuck with the bill for decades to come.

The news is now reporting that the student newspaper on campus (a college newspaper that has won national awards for its journalistic endeavors), the Southwestern Sun, is being told it cannot put out a newspaper in the coming month, and has been served with a "cease and desist" order by the administration. Are these the "extremists" that the campus was seeking to "isolate" and that were referenced in the PR document signed off on by this Alioto person (VP of Business and Finance) to the tune of $100,000?

Also, it was reported that the staff union at the college CSEA (California School Employees Association) was served notice by this same Alioto person to the effect that any CSEA Union members that work under his supervision would not be allowed to attend their once a month Friday meeting, as has been the case for decades at the college. What is going on here? What country do these people think they live in?

This college needs to be turned around, it really does. As a citizen and a taxpayer I am appalled at how my money is being spent. Honestly.

Good job, Susan. Very well done indeed.

This is really some very ugly stuff. I'm so glad that this rot, this abscess in the flesh of Southwestern College, is being exposed. The only way to treat it so that it will heal is to VOTE IN NOVEMBER, FOR HERNANDEZ, NADER, and SAINZ-GONZALEZ, for the Governing Board of Trustees.

Thanks for another great article exposing the unethical administration and Governing Board at SWC. Today the President shut down the award-winning student newspaper to stop the truth. These people are shameless and self-serving. Vote them out! VOTE IN NOVEMBER, FOR HERNANDEZ, NADER, and SAINZ-GONZALEZ


Is this story on the campus newspaper being reported? With an election coming up?

Founder, how does one navigate to your blog?

These community college foundations, as Richard Rider points out, seem to engage in shady business. They claim to be acting as conduits for scholarships and fund raising, but they often act as slush funds for the board of trustees.

The self-dealing Susan has exposed here is worthy of further investigation.

That a public entity would contract with a PR firm to use intimidation to "isolate" its critics and silence dissent is scary. Is it true that the college paper has been shut down?

Perhaps the Reader would be interested in publishing the article the administration wants to suppress?

Susan, this is a great piece of journalism. You really dug up the facts, and connected the players with the money. Kudos.

Now lets see if the DA or US Attorney is paying attention, or if they too participate in our elected officials' Reader boycott.



(BTW: Hi Richard. Long time no see!)

Greetings Fred Williams, San Francisco community college had an interesting problem with their foundation earlier this year that resulted in felony charges. I've included the link and I thank you for your comments. Susan


Reply #4 Great Post!

This limiting access and limiting free speech, in an attempt to limit accountability!

How "educational" is that, for all voters?

Someone needs to set up a fund for those running AGAINST limiting BOTH educational and fiscal awareness at SWC...

I wonder if the students could now start to self publish, under another similar BANNER NAME (The Stun) until the election and thereby "thumb their nose" at the current SWC Admin. "orders" instead of knuckling under and allowing this SWC Admin. sham to limit FREE SPEECH at SWC?

Reply #6 "VOTE IN NOVEMBER, FOR HERNANDEZ, NADER, and SAINZ-GONZALEZ, for the Governing Board of Trustees. "

Do these folks have the promotional skills and or support to gather the support of a winning number of voters? It would seem to me that most if not all of the entire College's employee's and Students would gladly help spread the word and or donate toward their Campaign because it is "Right"!

I hope you or someone else can inform all of US, about the status of SWC election process and also how more of the Online Readers can help them CLEAN UP SWC...

Reply #9

I'm not sure what you are asking, Please send me an email!

Reply #10 Great Post!

Here is "our" SWC homework assignment:

  1. What is the best way to spread the truth about SWC?

  2. How to get more folks to ask questions about SWCs' operation?

For Extra Credit:

Who should BE asked these questions, to achieve maximum response?

You have until the election, to submit additional information!

O.K. Founder, I'm starting the homework assignment.

  1. Was superintendent Chopra on the Foundation's board of directors when they gave money to support this bond?

  2. Who are the guys in the article's photo?

Reply #16

Great, maybe we can get some Facility, Staff and A+ students to help us with our research!

I believe that the center "guy" is Dan Hom of Focuscom http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/20...

Well Done

With this level of graft involved, I am curious why our district attorney, B. Dumanis, is not furiously pursuing fraud, bribery or other charges against these officials. After all, she went after Steve Castenada for his thoughts alone. I must agree that our only probable recourse is to vote them all out of office and start fresh. This story needs to remain front and center in the minds of the taxpayers who will soon be footing the bill. Thanks again, Susan, you are the best.

With this level of graft involved, I am curious why our district attorney, B. Dumanis, is not furiously pursuing fraud, bribery or other charges against these officials

Hahahah...you made a funny.

You mean have Bonnie Dumbass do her job and make flaming signposts out of these crooks as a lesson to other crooks who would possibly think about doing the same crime/s....good one!!!!!

Reply #18 & #19 Has anyone called her Office and asked if she is looking into the SWC "problem"?

It might be interesting to post her Official reply!

Founder #20,

That sounds like a great assignment. Someone should definitely make that call.

Hi JoePublic,

Sorry for the delayed response. In the picture on the left is Henry Amigable, program manager for Seville Construction. On the right is Jeff Flores President/CEO of Seville. Not sure who the man in the middle is. This is at a Southwestern Foundation fundraiser. Susan

Good point about previous investigations in Chula Vista Woodchuck. As I recall, it wasn't that long ago either that the Channel 10 I team was knocking on Castaneda's door on a Sunday morning demanding he come out and answer questions. And, of course, after the taxpayers paid for an investigation, Castaneda was innocent. Susan

In the late 80's and early 90's there was a long running legal dispute about the SDCCD foundation. I was the student representative on the Board of Trustees in 89-90 and recall many heated accusations and angry words about how the money was diverted from the district and used for other purposes. I don't know how it was eventually resolved.

So it's clear this issue has been around for a long time. The college boards especially escape scrutiny. Most voters don't even realise these boards exist, or how much money they control.

Our DA has zero interest, it seems, in looking into what they get up to. Anyone remember the scandal with the City College property deal? Millions of dollars lost to insider dealing, and even when it was exposed nothing happened.

So San Francisco, San Diego, Southwestern...looks like a pattern Susan. Maybe the State Attorney General should take a look...except the occupant of that office is good friends with community college board members, having been one himself.

Susan, maybe Cato or Reason would fund a deeper look into the broader issue of community colleges using their foundations for less than public purposes? Worth a try...



Reply #26 How about HuffingtonPost or The News Hour or 60 Minutes

I sent in a link to this story to Huffington Post's "scoop" !

Fred, thank you for the thoughtful response. I didn't realize nothing came of the whole city college/corner lot scandal. I think in certain time frames school board members often behave in the same way. No doubt the administration and and board members from different systems attend the same planning meetings. There are many troubling parallels between Los Angeles city as well as San Francisco and Southwestern. Hadn't been aware of Cato. Useful to know about. Susan

Flounder, Thanks for thinking enough of the story to send it forward to Huffington. Susan

I hope that while you are looking into all these questionable behaviors at Southwestern College you will also look into the campaign contributions and Prop O and BB contracts in the Sweetwater District. There are many of the same people and companies involved and donating to the campaigns of incumbents Cartmill and Ricasa.

Time for change on the Sweetwater Board too - Vote for Janney and Valencia for Sweetwater Board of Trustees on Nov. 2

save sweetwater,

Am interested in Sweetwater as well. Appreciate the suggestion. Susan

Prop R is the key to all of this.

We have been trying to find reason behind the Board's nonsensical decision making for years now. We didn't see what is now obvious, the motivation for this mess...

Greed. And avarice. The oldest and most powerful motivations of all.

Prop R is manna from heaven, a bushel-full of taxpayer cash dropped into the laps of the Board. Its now just a matter of finding out how they've decided to divvy it up among themselves and their cronies.

Heck...their cronies MADE IT APPEAR, like magic! ("YES! on Prop R"). Sounded good! Sounded GREAT for the college!! I voted for it! Now, I see that it is the fuel for this engine of madness. It is the motivation for ALL the Board's shenanigans! They are publicly-elected TRUSTEES! But they obviously don't give a tinker's damn about SWC!

They may have gotten away with it if they had only played nicely with others (e.g. the REST of the SWC community!) But no...they've played it stupidly. And now they're going be (have been!)exposed. As thieves of public funds, hopefully! There's GOT to be some criminal charges for one or more of them in this whole *-storm somewhere! After all, * is never evenly distributed when it strikes the blades of a moving fan!

They may continue to get away with it, if they aren't voted out in November.

  • R as in Real Wasteful -

Reply to #34 PHD You have said, what is for many, hard to see

Voters, try and vote, for the best solutions but now, instead get, faulty Institutions

Maybe the old Board is afraid that someone will tell the tale and all their careful planning will now get them all into jail

If Prop R, is really the key to all of this the Board, must be scared, of their big money abyss

One thing, is for me, real sure The first to talk, is impure

So by asking far more questions, we all must to insure, no more waste, of the Public Trust

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