South Bay residents expressed disenchantment with decisions being handed out in judge Ana España’s South Bay courtroom on January 30; then, España reduced former Southwestern College vice-president of business affairs Nicholas Alioto’s felony to a misdemeanor.
Alioto was a powerful player in what district attorney Bonnie Dumanis once described as the biggest corruption case in the history of San Diego County.
Alioto was originally charged with 11 counts, including conspiracy to defraud, conspiracy to commit a crime, perjury by declaration, receiving a bribe, wrongful influence, filing a false instrument, and accepting gifts in excess of the legal amount. Ultimately, he pleaded to accepting gifts.
In 2011, the Union-Tribune reported that Alioto went on a Napa wine-and-golf junket “three weeks before [Echo Construction] was awarded a $4 million contract with the college.”
The Napa trip was a prize awarded at the 2010 Southwestern Education Foundation Gala.
Frustration with the January 30 proceedings began early. Southwestern professor Carla Kirkwood pointed out that up until the day before the hearing, the South Bay court calendar scheduled Alioto’s sentencing for 1:30. Not until late Thursday did members of the public learn it was switched to the morning court session.
Kirkwood, who brought initial complaints to the district attorney’s office, expressed the opinion that more of her colleagues would have liked the opportunity to address the court but were unable to switch their calendars on such short notice.
Kirkwood stated, “The judge's change of schedule without posted public notice shows no regard for the community that was so damaged by these illegal actions and by those who carried out these acts. España's insistence on expressing her outrage at these acts coupled with her sentencing and scheduling decisions makes the court look both contradictory and hypocritical. How many political agendas have these cases been buried under? Who is seeking justice for our students, our families, our community, and our schools?”
Before sentencing, Kirkwood addressed España and reminded her that previous to being hired by Southwestern, Alioto had a consultancy business in Wisconsin that allegedly had ethical problems.
España, in her pre-sentencing remarks, stated that when Alioto arrived from Wisconsin “the wining and the dining was going quite strong and [Alioto] got swept right into it.”
Alioto’s attorney acknowledged that Alioto “became powerful at the school and that, unfortunately, power does corrupt.” Then, his attorney went on to state that Alioto did wrong by accepting gifts “but in his heart he always tried to do good by that school.”
Another speaker who addressed the court was community advocate Stewart Payne. Payne argued on behalf of South Bay taxpayers who will be paying down a billion-dollar bond debt for the next 40 years. Payne told the judge, “For me, this is a life sentence.” Payne pointed to the dusty corner lot at Southwestern that has absorbed millions of taxpayer dollars yet remains dusty.
Nick Marinovich, Sweetwater Proposition O bond-committee chair, asked España, “What message is it that you’re sending today to those who work in a public arena?” Marinovich recommended that Alioto get in line for a “baloney sandwich.”
Community advocate Fran Brinkman told the judge, “This community is disappointed. We were looking forward to our day in court — February 18 has now become April 28.” Brinkman also charged the judge with “inequity” in the sentences she’s handing out.
Kathleen Canney-Lopez, a Southwestern College professor and community resident, sent España a letter that read, in part:
“Lessening the charges to misdemeanors tells thousands of students that what they learn in our ethics classes (required for graduation) is not really true, at least for our former college administrators. We try to teach that short-term personal gain does not pay in the long run. I'm afraid the ‘Pay to Play’ scandal cases have shown the opposite.”
In addition to the misdemeanor charge, 160 days of community service, and a $7944 fine, España suggested that Alioto say, “I’m sorry.”
Alioto said, “I want to accept responsibility for the performance that I was involved in and say that I am truly sorry for anything that my actions resulted in. I believe very strongly to this day that the actions that I took were intended to get the best deals for the college…”
Deputy district attorney Leon Schorr said that although Alioto’s time at Southwestern was short, “it was a crucial period during the [request-for-proposal] selection process.” Schorr pressed for a felony charge.
After the hearing, Kirkwood commented, “The sentence handed out today demonstrates that this pattern of behavior has been sanctioned by the court.”