The Sweetwater Union High School District corruption case crescendoed in the South Bay courthouse on June 27. Former Sweetwater superintendent Jesus Gandara was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs. He was sentenced to 220 days in custody; 60 of those days will be served in jail and the rest under house arrest. In addition, judge Ana España ordered Gandara to pay a $7994 fine and perform 120 hours of community service.
Gandara pleaded guilty to one charge of felony conspiracy and has admitted to accepting gifts of travel, meals, and event tickets in excess of $4000.
Prior to the sentencing, community members advocated for jail time.
Jaime Mercado, who served as a trustee during Gandara’s tenure, accused Gandara of “corruption, intimidation, and reprisal.” He said Gandara had “earned the right to go to prison.”
Frances Brinkman, one of the people who originally took corruption complaints to the district attorney, applauded all of the unsung heroes who dared to speak out while Gandara was superintendent. Brinkman recited names such as Katy Wright, Tony Alfaro, Diana Carberry, Nancy Stubbs, and more…all people, she asserted, were unjustly fired by Gandara.
Kathleen Cheers, another community member who took corruption complaints to the district attorney, said that the majority of Sweetwater students received subsidized meals.
Cheers said she doubted if many of them “had ever tasted lobster.” She reminded the court of the lobster dinners that Gandara and his family enjoyed, paid for by vendors who worked for Sweetwater.
Attorney Paul Pfingst, who represented Gandara, pointed to Gandara’s remarkable career in education and his “commitment to children.” Pfingst lauded Gandara for getting the voters to pass Proposition O and referred to design awards that Proposition O projects received.
On the other side, deputy district attorney Leon Schorr said Gandara’s story was about “greed and ambition” and that Gandara was “hired into a situation that was ripe for corruption.”
Schorr argued that by punishing Gandara, the judge was warning “every other public official in the county.”
España said she had reviewed the material Pfingst submitted about Gandara’s accomplishments. She referred to his earlier career in Texas, then asked, “What happened along the way?”
España said Gandara “used his power to personally insert himself into negotiations with the contractors who were giving gifts to get jobs.”
Perhaps the tipping point for Gandara’s career came in 2011 when the U-T reported that Gandara hosted a wedding shower for his daughter at Murrietta’s restaurant in Bonita. Former Sweetwater trustees Arlie Ricasa and Jim Cartmill and still-current trustee John McCann attended the party. Vendors doing business with the district were also invited. The shower invitation announced there would be a money tree available for those inclined to pin on some greenery.
In retrospect, some people still wonder how Gandara was selected back in 2006. The district initially paid a headhunter group $30,000 to select him. Then the district paid Ricasa and Cartmill, who have both pleaded guilty to misdemeanors in this corruption case, to travel to Texas to vet Gandara.
The curious things is, Gandara hailed from the same little part of Texas where former Sweetwater superintendent Anthony Trujillo had retreated to after Sweetwater gave him his walking papers — and pension. Trujillo left Sweetwater to become superintendent of a small school district in Ysleta Texas and Gandara served as assistant superintendent there for a while. Gandara even acknowledged Trujillo in his doctoral thesis.
Sweetwater’s current superintendent, Ed Brand, is stepping down in October. Turning toward the future, many are already wondering — how will the new superintendent be vetted?