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Pleas entered as stage is set for South Bay corruption trial

The question of when a jury trial may begin in the criminal corruption cases -- involving former and current South Bay school officials, a construction bond manager and a contractor -- has been answered: All 13 defendants not previously arraigned pleaded not guilty Friday.

Superior Court Judge Ana Espana accepted the pleas, given in the South County branch of San Diego Superior Court in Chula Vista, and set a procedural timeline that calls for trial proceedings to begin on Feb. 18, 2014.

The cases involve 15 defendants in all. Two of them, bond underwriter Gary Cabello and current San Ysidro School District governing board member Yolanda Hernandez, had previously entered not guilty pleas.

With all defendants now at the same point in the hearings process, all 15 have been given the same dates for future proceedings.

Two pretrial conferences have been set for each, scheduled for July 17 and Oct. 29.

The widespread pay-for-play allegations include the offering bribes in exchange for favorable outcomes in construction contracts with the involved schools, and the acceptance of those bribes or gifts.

The indictments cite a collective 232 charges. Defendant Jeff Flores, president of Seville Construction Services, faces accusations of illegal dealings with officials from multiple South Bay-area school districts.

Also entering pleas Friday were six former or current Sweetwater Union High School District officials, former San Ysidro School District Superintendent Manuel Paul and five people connected to Southwestern College, including the college’s former facilities director John Wilson, its former governing board members Yolanda Salcido and Jorge Dominguez, former president Raj Chopra and former vice president Nicholas Alioto.

Paul was superintendent of San Ysidro School District until early April, when the school board voted to accept his resignation.

He had previously been on paid administrative leave since the time of his indictment.

Those defendants connected to Sweetwater Union High School District include current governing board members Pearl Quinones, Jim Cartmill, Bertha Lopez and Arlie Natalie Ricasa, as well as former governing board member Greg Sandoval and former district superintendent Jesus Gandara.

In addition to accepting the pleas, Espana issued a decision on a motion offered previously by Quinones’ attorney, Marc Carlos of law firm Bardsley & Carlos LLP, to have the 4,000 pages of grand jury transcripts sealed.

Espana declined Carlos' request, not agreeing that a release of the transcript would taint a future pool of jurors and citing case precedent.

“Something else that I’ve looked at in reviewing this case is that a lot of what is in the transcript. … As I’m reading this information, I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’ve seen this all before,’” Espana said, referring to documents already available in public affidavits. “So a summary of what I read — a lot of it — is already in public hands.”

However, acknowledging that the transcripts may contain certain prejudicial or inflammatory statements, Espana did meet halfway with Carlos by allowing for each of the defendants’ lawyers to offer by May 17 specific line items they wish to be redacted from the transcripts prior to their public release.

She set a hearing date of May 24 for a final decision to be made as to which of the attorneys’ suggestions will be granted.

Attorney Peter Blair of the Law Office of Vikas Bajaj APC, representing Dominguez, appeared satisfied with Espana’s decision.

“It was a fair compromise,” Blair said. “I think once we get our excerpts to the court, the court will issue a fair ruling.”

The complexity of the cases, including the widespread areas of the county in which the alleged crimes took place, number of defendants involved and size of the courtroom needed to handle such a large proceeding, has provided for many turns already.

Arraignments had previously been scheduled on three other occasions since the latest indictments were issued in December 2012 and in January — both in the Chula Vista courthouse and the downtown San Diego court — and had been delayed by change of venue motions and a re-assigning of the case to Espana.

A decision was made Friday morning, shortly before the arraignments were due to be heard, to relocate the hearings to Department 5 in the Chula Vista courthouse, because of its larger size, from its originally scheduled Department 15 location.

The scheduled proceedings in May, July and October are also scheduled to be heard in Department 5.

Henry Amigable, a former executive at Seville Construction Services, was sentenced in March on a misdemeanor conviction related to the corruption cases.

Given three years probation, he offered testimony to the grand jury in exchange for his guilty plea to a charge of offering a thing of value to a school board member.

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