The contractor that helped expose a corrupt “pay-to-play” culture at Sweetwater school district is now a candidate himself for a seat on the Board.
Hector Romero, who along with his company HAR Construction, sued the District in September 2011, claimed he was the victim of extortion by school board members and then-Superintendent Jesus Gandara.
In 2011, Romero turned over documents that helped District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis investigate and then charge 18 school officials and contractors from Sweetwater, San Ysidro school district, & Southwestern College. Every one of the defendants eventually pled guilty to a range of charges.
In June of this year, nearly five years after he filed his lawsuit, Romero reached a $7.35 million settlement with the District. The settlement specified that Romero could not bid on construction contracts with the District for five years.
Now Romero is a candidate for the school district’s Board of Trustees to make sure the corruption and financial waste does not return to the largest 9-12 grade district in the State.
“My contract was cancelled and I was dragged through the mud because I didn’t participate in their political extortion game,” Romero said as he left the Registrar of Voters after filing his candidate forms. “I lost millions of dollars because of their retribution and I want to make sure it doesn’t ever happen to anyone else,” Romero added.
Romero’s lawsuit claimed he was asked for political contributions in 2010 by then-board member Pearl Quiñonez who was running for the State Assembly at the time. When Romero refused her request and instead endorsed her opponent, Romero says Quiñonez and the District then disrupted his work on a $6.23 million modernization contract at Southwest Middle School and an $8.4 million contract at Southwest High School.
The impact of the District’s actions, Romero argues, caused his company to stop work and set in motion a cascading effect that led his surety company to step in to complete the contracts.
Romero and his company then sued the District in 2011 claiming over $13 million in damages. After nearly five years of pre-trial motions and depositions, both sides reached a mediated settlement that was approved by the Board on June 27, 2016.
“I had to fight against a $300 million a year entity just to get fairly compensated for what they did to me,” Romero said. “It wasn’t easy, but I knew the corruption had to end,” Romero added.
During the investigation, Romero provided emails and text messages he received from Board members and other school officials and contractors involved in the pay-to-play scheme. Romero contends that contractors were extorted by powerful board members and the Superintendent to give gifts, dinners, and travel in order to be selected for contracts to build schools. But unlike other contractors, Romero won his contracts through an open hard bid, meaning that he was the lowest responsible bidder.
Romero was not a defendant in the corruption case but did give sworn testimony before the San Diego County Grand Jury and provided details of the corrupt system the board members and superintendent used to extract gifts of dinners, drinks, and trips from contractors seeking work from the District.
Romero’s testimony was consistent with that of Henry Amigable, a representative for several companies that paid for expensive dinners for school officials. Amigable was described by prosecutors as the “center of the pay-to-play” scheme. Amigable pled guilty to providing gifts to board members and received three years probation after agreeing to cooperate with the prosecution.
A total of 18 individuals were indicted. In the end, Superintendent Jesus Gandara pleaded guilty to accepting gifts beyond the legal limit and he was sentenced to 220 days in jail. School board member Greg Sandoval, who pled guilty to felony conspiracy charge and a misdemeanor charge of failing to report gifts from school contractors, was sentenced to 45 days in jail.
Among the others who pled guilty was Pearl Quiñonez, who pled to one felony count of conspiracy to commit a crime and one misdemeanor related to not properly reporting gifts from contractors. Quiñonez was forced to resign from the school board immediately upon her guilty plea. Although she was sentenced to three years of probation, she did not serve any jail time.
The candidacy of the former contractor may cause some discomfort with current board members who continued to fight his lawsuit during their nearly two years on the board. All five of the current board members were elected in November 2014 in the wake the corruption scandal. But Romero contends both sides reached a mutually beneficial settlement that ended an expensive case for the District and limited it from potentially higher exposure had the case gone to trial.
“The current board inherited my case and they finally realized it was not worth continuing to spend taxpayer money defending the actions of the former corrupt officials,” Romero said. “I wish the lawsuit never would have happened, but it did help to expose the bad actions of the former school officials and started the process to clean up Sweetwater, San Ysidro, and Southwestern College,” Romero added.
Romero is running in Trustee Area 2 which is currently held by Kevin Pike, a retired Chula Vista Police Officer. Pike was one of five candidates for the seat in 2014, including Bertha Lopez who had held the seat prior to pleading guilty to a misdemeanor count of failing to report gifts from contractors. She was forced to resign the seat after the conviction, but she ran to regain the seat in November 2014. Pike received 26.5 percent of the vote to win that election.
“Mr. Pike stepped in to provide a new start after the corruption,” Romero commented, “but he doesn’t know as much as I do about how these large complex construction contracts work,” Romero added. “The District will be spending hundreds of millions of dollar in the next few years and I want to make sure our taxpayer dollars are spent correctly, without corruption or graft,” Romero concluded.
The area includes the communities of Chula Vista roughly bordered by Third Avenue on the West, Highway 54 on the North, L Street / Telegraph Canyon Road on the South, and the SR 125 on the East.
The election will be held on November 8th.