The arraignments of 14 defendants scheduled to enter pleas Wednesday in the criminal corruption cases involving South Bay-area school and college officials, a contractor and a bond manager have been postponed until Feb. 15, and just where they’ll be heard is in question again.
A packed courtroom of just 31 seats in the South County branch of the San Diego Superior Court in Chula Vista barely offered enough room Wednesday morning for the defendants, their lawyers and a few members of the media. Most people not officially part of the proceedings were asked to stand outside.
Defendants in the cases are accused of various connections to the awarding of contracts by school officials following the alleged receipt of undocumented gifts from contractors and others associated with the contracts.
According to attorney Marc Carlos, who represents Sweetwater Union High School District board member Pearl Quinones, Superior Court Judge Stephanie Sontag ordered the postponement in response to new lawyers entering the cases.
The court needs to determine whether the new lawyers have filed a demurer -- or a challenge -- to the sufficiency of the complaint, Carlos said after Wednesday’s hearing.
The cases were originally scheduled to be heard in the court’s Central division in downtown San Diego, where early proceedings had already taken place. On Jan. 28, however, San Diego Superior Court announced that the cases had been moved to the South County courthouse. It’s possible the cases may be returning to downtown San Diego.
Prosecutors in the cases filed a motion for a change of venue on Wednesday.
Sontag scheduled a hearing on the motion, ordering it be heard Feb. 5 in Dept. 11 at the downtown San Diego court. She re-scheduled the arraignments to be heard at the South County court, but if the motion for change of venue is granted, those arraignments will be heard in San Diego instead of Chula Vista.
Carlos said that he supports the prosecution’s motion to move the cases back to downtown San Diego.
“You’ve been to the board meetings,” Carlos said. “They’ve got people that are there that show pictures of the clients when they were arrested; they call them felons. It’s not a very friendly place for a trial.”
He added that finding a jury panel without connections to the defendants, their affiliated schools or the school boards they either sit on or used to sit on would be difficult in the South Bay. Such connections could include former or current students at the schools, their parents or relatives of the defendants.
“It’s going to be difficult to find a jury that can remain neutral on this,” Carlos said. “That’s why I think downtown is a better place.”
Quinones is one of four active board members at Sweetwater Union to be facing charges. The other defendants include fellow Sweetwater Union board members Jim Cartmill, Bertha Lopez and Arlie Ricasa; Yolanda Hernandez and Manuel Paul, both of the San Ysidro School District governing board; Jeff Flores, president of Seville Construction Services; John Wilson, Yolanda Salcido, Jorge Dominguez, Raj Chopra and Nicholas Alioto -- all former Southwestern College officials; former Sweetwater Union board member Greg Sandoval; and Sweetwater Union’s former superintendent Jesus Gandara. Bond manager Gary Cabello has already pleaded guilty to five criminal charges, including bribery.
Defense lawyers in the case have also filed a motion to seal 27 volumes of transcripts from grand jury proceedings in the case.
“After a certain period of time, the transcripts become public record,” Carlos said. “Having [them] surface … would make it difficult to get a fair trial.”