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Sweetwater contractors slapped down

Their lawyers more than a bit late in filing challenge

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 Case

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.

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Comments
8

The resolution of this lawsuit will tie up one loose end remaining from the So County school district scandals. Laws like anti-SLAPP have to be carefully enacted. If not, there can be some unintended consequences, like the bad guys using them on the good guys. Just note that the appeals court didn't say that the construction company didn't qualify for relief. The turn-down was based on a technicality of timeliness.

Sept. 8, 2015

So many things were swept under the carpet. But it is great to see that some efforts to correct the horrendous mess are still being made.

Sept. 8, 2015

If this suit on top of the (short) jail sentences for a few miscreants, plus the fines and removal from office, "scare straight" a few people, it could make a difference. I'd have preferred to see all of those SWC, SUHSD, and SYUSD board members and administrators do some jail time.

But if this suit goes against the contractors, fewer contractors who do business with districts, cities and counties will be willing to pay up. It takes two for pay-to-play, a payor and a payee. Take either one out of the equation and nothing happens.

Sept. 8, 2015

I believe trying to envoke slapp suit language, while at the same citing political donations as free speech, is way too much of a stretch.

Taking elected officials out to expensive dinners for the explicit purpose to win a contract bid is not the same as contributions to a political campaign.

SLAPP is an acronym for strategic litigation against political participation. There was never a chance in hell that that was applicable in this situation. Bribery is not political participation.

Sept. 8, 2015

I'm glad that these contractors, who bribed trustees and likely gained these contracts due to those bribes, are having to defend themselves for these actions. My question is, what standing does Corey Briggs and San Diegans for Open Government have? Did Briggs have kids in the district? Is he a taxpayer in the district? Who is the plaintiff? If they prevail, will SD for Open Govt get the proceeds? This money should go back to the school district not to Briggs. Is he using this as a way to make money off the backs of government? If so shame on him. If the money goes back to the district, then he deserves a thank you!!

Sept. 8, 2015

Why does he need to have children in the district to make his suit valid? You toss in a red herring, hence the remainder of your post is invalidated.

Sept. 8, 2015

Take it easy on Briggs until you have reason to think he's profiteering. Note that the district, even with the new board, didn't try to recover anything. You might spend more energy on that question than questioning him. He's been a one man challenger to many things that need scrutiny in the city of SD. Sure let's watch Briggs, but while you're at it, you might question the current Sweetwater board about their lack of effort to get back the money from HAR.

Sept. 8, 2015

Bvavb - interesting that ONLY 1 of the 5 who went to FBI and DA had a child in the District.

While I am pretty sure Attorney Briggs has no children in our District, I, for one say THANK GOODNESS for his efforts!

Sept. 9, 2015

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Jesus Gandara at his arraignment, January 13, 2012
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 Case

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.

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Comments
8

The resolution of this lawsuit will tie up one loose end remaining from the So County school district scandals. Laws like anti-SLAPP have to be carefully enacted. If not, there can be some unintended consequences, like the bad guys using them on the good guys. Just note that the appeals court didn't say that the construction company didn't qualify for relief. The turn-down was based on a technicality of timeliness.

Sept. 8, 2015

So many things were swept under the carpet. But it is great to see that some efforts to correct the horrendous mess are still being made.

Sept. 8, 2015

If this suit on top of the (short) jail sentences for a few miscreants, plus the fines and removal from office, "scare straight" a few people, it could make a difference. I'd have preferred to see all of those SWC, SUHSD, and SYUSD board members and administrators do some jail time.

But if this suit goes against the contractors, fewer contractors who do business with districts, cities and counties will be willing to pay up. It takes two for pay-to-play, a payor and a payee. Take either one out of the equation and nothing happens.

Sept. 8, 2015

I believe trying to envoke slapp suit language, while at the same citing political donations as free speech, is way too much of a stretch.

Taking elected officials out to expensive dinners for the explicit purpose to win a contract bid is not the same as contributions to a political campaign.

SLAPP is an acronym for strategic litigation against political participation. There was never a chance in hell that that was applicable in this situation. Bribery is not political participation.

Sept. 8, 2015

I'm glad that these contractors, who bribed trustees and likely gained these contracts due to those bribes, are having to defend themselves for these actions. My question is, what standing does Corey Briggs and San Diegans for Open Government have? Did Briggs have kids in the district? Is he a taxpayer in the district? Who is the plaintiff? If they prevail, will SD for Open Govt get the proceeds? This money should go back to the school district not to Briggs. Is he using this as a way to make money off the backs of government? If so shame on him. If the money goes back to the district, then he deserves a thank you!!

Sept. 8, 2015

Why does he need to have children in the district to make his suit valid? You toss in a red herring, hence the remainder of your post is invalidated.

Sept. 8, 2015

Take it easy on Briggs until you have reason to think he's profiteering. Note that the district, even with the new board, didn't try to recover anything. You might spend more energy on that question than questioning him. He's been a one man challenger to many things that need scrutiny in the city of SD. Sure let's watch Briggs, but while you're at it, you might question the current Sweetwater board about their lack of effort to get back the money from HAR.

Sept. 8, 2015

Bvavb - interesting that ONLY 1 of the 5 who went to FBI and DA had a child in the District.

While I am pretty sure Attorney Briggs has no children in our District, I, for one say THANK GOODNESS for his efforts!

Sept. 9, 2015

Sign in to comment

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