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Five charged in Sweetwater high school district corruption scandal plead not guilty

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SAN DIEGO (CNS) - The ex-superintendent of the Sweetwater Union High School District and four other people pleaded not guilty Friday to bribery, perjury and other charges.

Former SUHSD Superintendent Jesus Gandara, trustees Arlie Ricasa and Pearl Quinones, 16-year former board member Greg Sandoval, and Henry Amigable, an executive who worked for a construction company hired by the school district, all remain free on their own recognizance.

Gandara, 55, Sandoval, 58, Quinones, 59, and Ricasa, 47, are charged with perjury, filing a false document and other charges. Amigable, 47, is charged with giving or offering a bribe.

Judge Michael Smyth scheduled a status conference for March 23.

All of the defendants were allegedly involved in a "pay-for-play" culture with businesses that were awarded contracts for voter-approved bond projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars, said District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.

Between 2008 and 2011, the defendants frequented San Diego-area restaurants, spending hundreds of dollars on food and drinks, sometimes more than $1,000 per outing, Dumanis said. The defendants were also given Los Angeles Lakers playoff tickets, Rose Bowl tickets and a trip to Napa Valley, she said.

She said for years, the public officials regularly accepted what amounted to bribes in exchange for their votes on multimillion-dollar construction projects.

Dumanis said the investigation has been going on for a year.

Fran Brinkman, a retired SUHSD teacher and one of five people who initiated the criminal investigation, said outside of court today: "Because it's like, we spent over a year standing in front of these people wanting their attention, telling them what was wrong, and because of their lack of response we felt that something might be going on."

Another whistleblower, Kathleen Cheers, said children have been hurt by the alleged crimes.

"This is about the kids," Cheers said outside court. "And everyone, every taxpayer, every parent, needs to understand that. All of this money, think of it, if it would have been put in a classroom."

Cheers said she wants certain board members removed and a search for a new superintendent to begin immediately.

Quinones' attorney, Marc Carlos, spoke to reporters after Friday's arraignment.

"Ms. Quinones' vote is not for sale," Carlos said. "Everything that she did she have prior approval of. She consulted with attorneys. She did everything which is done in a normal course and scope of her job and with the board."

Carlos said some e-mails written in the course of Quinones' employment were "innocent" and could have been taken out of context.

Quinones said she won't step down from the school board.

Ricasa's attorney, Allen Bloom, said his client will be exonerated of the charges.

Dan Greene, Amigable's attorney, said his client was just doing his job as a construction company employee.

"He's been trained by the companies he's worked for, `You need to make connections. You need to introduce people,"' Greene said. "Meet and greets. We've called it wining and dining. If this were the private sector, I'm sure nobody would be shocked. Wining and dining happens all the time."

If convicted, the defendants face between four and seven years in state prison.

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