Jesus Gandara at his arraignment, January 13, 2012
A lawsuit over the alleged pay-to-play construction scheme at Sweetwater Union High School District will move forward, according to a ruling from the Fourth District Court of Appeals.
On August 31, the appellate court found that the petitioner, San Diegans for Open Government, had proper standing to sue several contractors who were awarded large construction contracts after wining and dining district board members.
Pay to Play
In January 2012, district attorney Bonnie Dumanis’s office filed criminal charges against Sweetwater Union's then-superintendent Jesus Gandara and trustees Pearl Quiñones, Arlie Ricasa, and Greg Sandoval. As the investigation continued, the alleged bribery scheme grew more vast. Fifteen people from three school districts throughout San Diego County were indicted for what Dumanis’s office called a pay-to-play scheme.
In Sweetwater Union's case, former superintendent Gandara and board members Sandoval, Quiñones, and Ricasa pleaded guilty to accepting gifts, trips, dinners, and tickets in exchange for lucrative construction contracts; contractor Henry Amigable also pleaded guilty.
San Diegans for Open Government files lawsuit
In 2012, public advocacy group San Diegans for Open Government, headed by attorney Cory Briggs, filed a lawsuit aimed at invalidating the contracts and retrieving the money paid to contractors as a result of the bribery scandal.
One company, HAR Construction, received numerous contracts from Sweetwater Union, including work on Southwest Middle and Southwest High schools in June to July 2009 totaling $14.6 million. In addition to the contract amount were expensive change orders.
The lawsuit named HAR Construction, Gilbane Building Company, and the Seville Group.
The companies are now fighting to keep the money and contracts and to dismiss San Diegans for Open Government's case. In 2013, Gilbane Construction filed a motion challenging the nonprofit group's legal standing. A judge dismissed the motion.
In November 2013, HAR Construction challenged the lawsuit under the anti-SLAPP statute, stating that the political contributions to Sweetwater officials should be regarded as "quintessential rights of free speech and petition protected by the Anti-SLAPP statute."
Attorneys for the construction company also argued that they were awarded the contract because they were the low bidder and that political donations were not a factor in winning the contracts.
Attorneys for HAR Construction filed the anti-SLAPP motion 16 months after San Diegans for Open Government filed the lawsuit. A superior court judge denied the motion, finding the lawsuit had merits and the advocacy group would likely prevail. HAR Construction then filed an appeal. On August 31, 2015, the appellate court rejected the claims.
"An anti-SLAPP motion is not a vehicle for a defendant to obtain a dismissal of claims in the middle of litigation; it is a procedural device to prevent costly, unmeritorious litigation at the initiation of the lawsuit. When a case has been pending long after the 60-day period, the parties have presumably engaged in pretrial litigation and the purposes of an anti-SLAPP motion are no longer applicable," was the ruling from the appellate court.
"We determine HAR Construction's motion was untimely and the anti-SLAPP statute is inapplicable because [San Diegans for Open Government's] claims fell within the statute's public interest exemption."
The case will return to the trial court to be heard on its merits.