In an April 17, 2013, deposition, former San Ysidro School District superintendent Manuel Paul pleaded the Fifth 43 times in less than an hour in a breach-of-contract lawsuit filed against the district by EcoBusiness Alliance/Manzana Energy. The district has asserted in court documents that Paul is a key witness. If Paul cannot participate in the discovery process, what can this mean for the district’s case?
The lawsuit stemmed from a 2008 contract between Ecobusiness Alliance/Manzana Energy and the San Ysidro School District, which agreed to allow the company to build solar panels on school sites and sell the electricity generated by the panels back to the district over a 25-year period for a fee of $18.9 million.
No solar panels were built by the time the district terminated the contract in October 2011, and the district had not expended any money on the venture.
Art Castañares, a partner in the solar-panel company, said in a recent interview that, 15 days into a 30-day termination notice, his company’s contract was terminated. According to him, the contract called for “good faith negotiations and binding arbitration."
Castañares has asserted in court documents that the husband of a San Ysidro trustee asked him to buy a house for him and his trustee wife — between the time the energy contract was in place and the time it was canceled. Castañares refused to, and asserts, “We didn’t play the pay-to-play game and we believe that’s why the district canceled our contract.”
Prior to the April 17 deposition, attorneys from the law firm of Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz, the corporation that represents San Ysidro, sought a protective order, among other things, to limit the line of questioning from the plaintiff’s (Ecobusiness) attorney.
At the time the request was filed, Paul faced indictment for alleged “pay-to-play” corruption in the South Bay. (Paul was subsequently indicted on April 12 along with 14 other representatives from three South County school districts. The defendants pleaded innocent to the charges.)
San Ysidro’s request for a protective order argued that “If [Paul] asserts the Fifth Amendment to questions due to the pending criminal matter, the District will not be able to introduce evidence with the Superintendent’s knowledge, thus impeding the District’s ability to defend against the Plaintiff’s allegations.”
In August of last year Wendy Fry, a journalist for NBC7, reported that former superintendent Paul, during a previous deposition in the solar-energy case, admitted to receiving $2500 in the parking lot of a Chula Vista steak house.
According to Fry’s report, Paul stated that Loreto Romero, a local contractor allegedly hoping for work in the San Ysidro district, gave him the cash as a campaign contribution for San Ysidro board member Yolanda Hernandez. (Hernandez was indicted in the alleged corruption cases as well.)
The allegations of corruption in the South Bay school districts and the San Ysidro energy-contract case have common players: Romero is the brother of Hector Romero. They own HAR construction company, which had contracted with the Sweetwater Union High School District and had allegedly hoped to work in San Ysidro.
According to 2011 district attorney documents, along with wining and dining some Sweetwater trustees and former superintendent Jesus Gandara, Hector Romero reported being with Gandara in Mexico when Gandara contacted Seville Group, Inc., and solicited a $20,000 contribution to Sweetwater Union High School trustee Jim Cartmill’s campaign.
Dan Shinoff, attorney for the San Ysidro district, was contacted by email on April 23. There was no response.