Sweetwater school board supporters and detractors show in court

Additional indictments brought by DA

Pearl Quiñones and her lawyer
  • Pearl Quiñones and her lawyer

“We love you Pearl!” shouted several people to Pearl Quiñones inside the lobby of the downtown courthouse on January 7.

Handfuls of supporters and opponents in the alleged Sweetwater Union High School District “pay for play” scheme attended the packed courtroom on Monday for the arraignments of the school officials charged with accepting gifts in exchange for favorable votes on contracts.

Quiñones is one of five individuals charged by San Diego County district attorney Bonnie Dumanis’s office last January, along with other Sweetwater board members, its former district superintendent, and a contractor. All have maintained not-guilty pleas to charges such as perjury, filing a false instrument, bribery, and wrongful influence.

The January 7 court date included ten additional defendants in two indictments, totaling 232 charges by a grand jury. It was announced that prosecutors have more than 57,000 pages of discovery.

The ongoing investigation widened to include officials from the San Ysidro School District, Southwestern College, and a bond underwriter, according to a statement from the DA’s office. Most arraignments were put off until January 30, as at least two lawyers for the defendants later said in the lobby that they hadn’t had a chance to read the lengthy indictments.

Quiñones, a recently reelected Sweetwater Union High School District board member, also spoke to the media after the arraignment: “I’m feeling really good about it. I know I’m innocent and I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said. She received loud cheers from several supporters.

Alex Anguiano, president of the Sweetwater Education Association, received applause from some other courthouse attendees after he addressed the multiple news cameras: “The reality is we have school board members that have accepted gifts in exchange for expensive projects,” he said. “Whether it’s legal or not, it’s not the right thing to do.”

The charges date from January 2007 to June 1, 2012, and include counts such as officials partaking in expensive dinners, some exceeding $1000, which were paid for by contractors without reimbursement.

According to the district attorney’s office, if convicted, defendants face fines and between six months and seven years in prison, along with possible additional penalties.

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We have been waiting for the Reader to report on this widening scandal. On consecutive recent days, the number of those indicted rose by five each, and now a whopping fifteen are facing serious charges. Worse yet, four out of five current SUHSD trustees are under indictment! The scandal has spread to Southwestern College and the San Ysidro district. Is this the end of it? My gut feeling is that it will continue and reach other districts in So Bay. The corruption of school districts in that part of the county has gone on for so long, and is so deeply imbedded, that many of the guilty really didn't understand what constituted wrongdoing.

It seemed odd that there had been no plea bargains with any of the first five who were indicted. Now it seems that with more indictments coming, the DA wasn't going to do any until a fuller picture of the scandal was revealed. Frankly, I never expected much action from our DA. So, all these charges are a huge surprise.

Susan Luzzaro was the reporter on these So Bay goings on, and we haven't seen her byline for weeks. Can we expect her back on the job soon?

This is not the end. It's going on all over the state, all over the US and Canada and beyond. A systematic siphoning off of the public construction dollar, with certain manufacturers specifically targeting schools. As an architect I stumbled onto it working for UCSF and got fired for going to the FBI about it 16 years and two weeks ago. Had something been done and not repeatedly squashed on every level except for the California State Auditor, who is not allowed to audit or investigate the Dept. of Education - K through 12 and over 40% of the state budget - the state would have saved $500 million a year in the one product area I reported (and there are more!). In contrast, the Dept. of Education in my home state (Georgia) stopped the bidding side of the scam (not purchasing side - yet) in - get this - 2-1/2 weeks. TOO many politicians from the lowest boards and levels have been dirtied and are controlled here in California. Getting it?


Sorry does a doctor always lower his fee just because it is a child he/she is treating? A contract is a contract and in a free somewhat capitalistic society teachers are allowed to negotiate...welcome to America. I am sure all the teachers spend their holidays in San Tropez because they have such extravagant salaries.

Well. We could use something with a bit more substance here...I hope Susan Luzzaro's absence is only temporary. Have to concur with angrybirds that Susan's educated, journalistic approach has done much to show the public just what has been going on here.

Visduh, as always, you make a solid contribution to the discussion.

And timtim, showing consistency in your lack of editing skills...gosh, I do hope you have nothing to do with education, as you seem to have limited association with correct spelling and punctuation (not to mention syntax). All those errors distract the reader from your message...which, to be honest, I would have to label a sorry attempt at smearing those who have been working for transparency, honesty and a responsible use of the Bond monies.

Why so hostile, timtim? Not really feeling the love lately? Walls crashing in a bit? Unhappy that the truth might be getting out to the wider public?

When Fast Eddy gets to pick and choose his pet projects, fund them, provide jobs for his pals and do just as he wants BECAUSE THE MAJORITY BOARD GAVE HIM A CONTRACT THAT IS NAUSEATINGLY "TOADYING"--that is a pretty good indication that this school district is grotesquely off-base. Has lost its way. How could that happen?

Oh--maybe because as Visduh mentions, the atmosphere in certain circles has been poisoned for so long that people no longer recognize what wrong-doing is? Or small-minded people are just out for themselves and their careers? Or incredibly arrogant (yet also ill-equipped morally) individuals have shown the public, the students and the teachers such contempt that the public will no longer stand for this type of treatment.

I'm not sure, timtim. But I bet you could tell me all about it. I wish you would.

So what do you really aspire to? Why not try to do some good instead of the opposite? If you could learn to find a backbone, think for yourself and navigate by a few guiding principles, you might accomplish something worthwhile.

Eastlaker, I was waiting for someone to take timtim to task for his poor spelling, poor grammar, lack of punctuation, and generally not knowing the conventions of typing, such as a space after the comma and . . . In a couple previous go-rounds our pal anniej would do that, but you've done it well. If I can get past all the language challenges, timtim seems to be saying that Bertha Lopez is in thrall to the teachers union, and that all this shxx that has gone down, to the tune of fifteen "educators" under indictment, is all about the next union contract. Ah, yes, it is the teachers union that has somehow managed to get the ever un-watchful DA to indict a flock of innocents in three school districts in So Bay. And all so that the union can get a fatter contract from Bertha and her cohort.

So, timtim, howcum Bertha herself is one of those so charged? Brand will do whatever is necessary for him to a) remain in control and b) pursue his pet projects. If that means giving the union a nice settlement, that's what he will do. Brand is not the taxpayers friend in any way, shape or form.

And, timtim, I'm not a wanna-be teacher (note punctuation), I am a teacher with a heck of a lot better language skills than you will ever have, even it you live a century.

I guess we will have to add unfamiliarity with the correct use of tense. As in present, past, future, etc.

Pretty sure timtim wouldn't be able to pass the high school exit exam if this is all s/he is capable of.

Tim Tim: according to one of your high school teachers you were a puts as a teenager, and have grown up to be an older, even though not bigger putts.

Could it be that the net has not been pulled all of the way in? Might there be more fish? Hmmmmmmmmm

Sorry to see Tim Tim taking hits for grammer, spell, etc. Open season for his positions. That having been said, I will note that Dr. Brand does what the majority of the Board allows him to do. Three votes, they all understand three votes on a five member board. With felony convictions, this community could have those three votes.

The big question remains, who comes up with all the schemes that drain the educational accounts--and then claims that all the teachers and other school workers need to take pay reductions and enforced days off--while arranging a salary for himself that has all the bells and whistles? And why does the board keep giving Brand just what he asks for?

Many are thinking it could have something to do with all the corruption. Either that, or Quinones, Ricasa, Cartmill and McCann don't know up from down or their hat from their elbow.

Now, while each of the aforementioned board members might be challenged in his or her own way, could it be said that any or all of them is actually incapable of logical thought? That they are unable to take a problem and think it through to the proper conclusion? (While the public has been given little to no evidence of the majority board's ability to cogitate and act as a result of clear thinking and ethical standards, we cannot rule out the possibility that someday, somehow they might actually rise to the occasion and do what is right--but it wouldn't make much sense to hold your breath until that happens).

Or is it that none of them have bothered with all of that, because it is far easier to vote as they are told, appear comatose during board meetings and completely ignore the legitimate concerns of the voting public?

timtim's positions? Now, there's a laugh. The only position timtim has to his/her credit is a frantic attempt to discredit Bertha Lopez, because she represents something s/he will never be--a dedicated public servant who is not Brand's toady and was not Gandara's toady.

Sad that it takes the DA for the Sweetwater board to become aware that the majority of them have taken the wrong path.

It is sadder than that. It is taking the DA to make the voters in So Bay understand that their elected board members are corrupt. They reelected Pearl, meaning that they either don't know about or don't care about the items on her list of criminal charges. The first line of defense against political corruption should be the votes of an informed public, and that line of defense fails over and over in those districts. Relying upon the public prosecutor to keep these people honest and serving the voters and taxpayers has it all backward. But, it is sad to note that some cities, let's pick on Chicago as prime example, have had long-running political machines that are repeatedly reelected. Machine politics is just a fancy name for institutionalized corruption.

I guess you could say that this is what happens when the forum of public opinion and discussion is: a) fragmented; b) underutilized; c) squelched; d) bought off; e) all of the above.

Bertha Lopez has spoken up and voted for what is right. That must really get under your skin.

We know she has counts against her, but let's see how it plays out.

We also know she is not the ringleader of the offenders. Let's just hope we find the ringleader(s), and they are justly dealt with.

"The truth will out!"

"The truth will set us free!"

"The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth!"

I seldom single out any of the board members. Months ago I advocated that all of them needed to be removed by non-reelection (which didn't happen to either Lopez or the indicted Quinones) due to the cloud that all had created. Failing to defeat them at the ballot box, then recall would be the appropriate step. Now, if things go well, four will be removed by criminal conviction--wait and watch for guilty pleas, AKA plea bargains--that take them out of their positions. The only real mess will be how they are replaced when there is no way to have a board quorum. Hmmm. Maybe at that juncture the county board will step in and run the district until elections can be held. The sad part will be that any new board will be stuck with Brand's sweetheart contract even if they all want him gone. If you think this scandal has gone about as far as it can go, think again. It has the potential to be absolute chaos.

Visduh, I think it is time for the State Board of Education to step in, as no one else seems to have made an effort. The work the board is supposed to be doing is not being done; if anything, this is giving Brand time to set up all sorts of things just as he wants them. He should be taken out of office, or at least greatly corralled. And we need that forensic audit going back a couple of decades.

If either the county board or the state board has to step in and take over the district until a new board can be put in place, hopefully by election and not appointment, the action will be almost unprecedented, at least in this county in the past century or more. Today's Manchester Mill has a front page story on these prosecutions that examines them from a curious angle. The reporter expresses skepticism that juries will see these bits of double-dealing as crimes. Errors of judgment and/or moral failings perhaps, but not crimes. And then there's the matter of the DA putting her prestige on the line and coming up empty handed. Well, in my mind the DA has no prestige at this time, and is therefore risking nothing. And I had the impression she had already announced that this would be her last term in that office, although I may be mistaken about that. As stated previously, I'm most surprised that these offenses ever got as far as indictments. There's the matter of where the trials will be held if any of these defendants choose to go to trial. If they select Chula Vista, they'll face juries populated by the same sort of brain-dead types who elected and reelected them. And there is a good chance some will be acquitted. So, I may be surprised several more times as this whole scandal and its resolution proceeds to conclusion. Let us all hope for the best, and that all those who should be exercising oversight, such as the county board and staff, and the state board and its staff, step up to the plate when needed and do the right things.

Which is why the patterns of the board's behavior need to be documented as well--how the majority board members openly mocked Bertha Lopez time and time again, how several of them showed perverse pleasure denying Ms. Lopez the right to lead the pledge of allegiance, how they would smugly sit and ignore the public input, how they would illegally cut the allotted time given for public input, how they would yawn, stretch, get up and stroll to the water fountain while parents, students, teachers and the taxpayers of our community were trying to get their points across and solve our schools' problems.

What a bunch of fatuous, selfish creatures. I hope that soon they will see themselves for what they really are.

And--I believe that Oakland's school district had to have the state of California step in. So I know it has been done in the past 5 years or so.

Perhaps you could provide all of us an encapsulated version of what happened in Oakland, why, when, and the outcome. Isn't it horrifying to think that this has come to the low that anything in Oakland could attain? Note that I did qualify my comment about such intervention.

We have read about the outrageous behavior of board members at official board meetings of the SUHSD, but few if any of the comment makers have ever experienced it. I'm not going to be in attendance, due to the distances involved, but I can say that just a few times at meetings of the Vista USD have given me pause. Both public comments and things said by board members have taken me aback. It is easy for those board meetings to turn into circuses, and VUSD has its history of that, but as far as legitimate claims of bribery, kickbacks, "pay to play", or other undeniable wrongdoing are concerned, VUSD comes up clean so far. This sort of thing in the county is just not something that has come up in many, many decades, and casts a huge pall over the South County community.

One can only hope that with a new board that we get one that realizes that the Superintendent is THEIR employee, not the other way around.

If timtim doesn't want to take hits for grammar, spelling, punctuation, syntax and a host of other language skills, then he should clean up his act and make his message clear. It isn't just his sloppy typing that misses the mark, it is that his comments seem all but incomprehensible.

Visduh, I think you were my 10th grade English teacher ! :} :} :}

Visduh, the Oakland school district situation was pretty messy. I lived in the area from 1989 - 1995, so heard a few things then, but I didn't have any direct contact with anyone teaching or attending school in Oakland.

Aside from the usual issues, they just couldn't get a handle on the finances. So the state was brought in. That decision didn't really solve things, because apparently it just created a greater distance between the problems and the solutions. I guess the take home message is that there would need to be someone at the state level who was ready to go to work and solve problems, and it was more like---well, lets just keep shoving problems along...

If I can transcribe the link correctly, this article should help. So state intervention really is the last resort--and it isn't like turning over the reins to people raring to get things done.


My last comment to this story, I promise! Has anyone looked at the picture of Pearl and her lawyer that is at the top of this blog post? She is quoted as saying “I’m feeling really good about it. I know I’m innocent and I didn’t do anything wrong,” Does that photo show a woman who feels good? A picture is worth a thousand words, and that one tells us that her real situation isn't positive at all. I'd say she looks worried sick, and well she should.

And her attorney looks like he is seconds from bursting into tears...

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