District denies fault but admits “improper” behavior
The Sweetwater Union High School District has settled a lawsuit and agreed to turn over documents requested more than 2 years ago.
The lawsuit, filed by Chula Vista taxpayer Kevin O’Neill back in 2013, claimed the District and its lawyers refused to disclose invoices, reports, and other documents related to a company called ESI International. The company, headed by former FBI agent Robert Price, was paid by the District to conduct investigative services, including background checks.
Critics of the District have claimed ESI International had been used to investigate and dig up dirt on anyone that voiced concerns or criticisms of the District or its board. Between 2012 and 2014, the District approved $215,000 in payments to ESI International.
The law firm used by the District at the time was Stutz, Artiano, Shinoff & Holtz, a local firm specializing in representing school districts. The Stutz firm has used ESI International as its investigative firm in several local lawsuits including for Poway, San Ysidro, and San Diego County Office of Education cases. The Stutz firm was not involved in reaching the settlement this week.
In the settlement, the Sweetwater District agrees to release summaries of the invoices with certain privileged information being redacted. The District also agreed to pay over $34,000 in legal fees to Mr. O’Neill’s attorney, Cory Briggs.
The most interesting line in the 4-page settlement agreement was buried in Paragraph 5 on Page 3 where the District admits that “portions of the public records…were improperly withheld from disclosure by a prior District board and administration.”
That statement lays the blames squarely on former Superintendent Ed Brand and the board members at the time; Bertha Lopez, Arlie Ricasa, Pearl Quinonez, Jim Cartmill, and John McCann. Lopez, Ricasa, Quinonez, and Cartmill were all indicted in the wide-ranging corruption scandal that led to convictions for each of them. Bertha Lopez is currently running to regain a seat on the Sweetwater School Board. John McCann was later elected to and currently serves on the Chula Vista City Council.
Mr. O’Neill has claimed he made offers to settle the case after a new board was elected in November 2014 but that no settlement was reached. School Board President Frank Tarantino has said that the Board never received any settlement offers.
A similar he said/she said occurred with the same law firm when it represented the San Ysidro School District in a breach of contract case during the same time period. In that case, the school board claimed settlement offers were not delivered to the board. The case eventually resulted in a $12 million jury verdict against the San Ysidro School District. The District later sued the Stutz law firm for malpractice and reached a $1.8 million settlement to recover its legal fees.
ESI International was involved in very contentious case back in 2006 where the Miracosta Community College District spend over $1.3 million investigating suspected mishandling of its horticulture department. The law firm representing the college district was Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz.
The law firm hired ESI International to conduct the investigation. ESI’s report was later called “incomplete” and “inaccurate”. In the end the case found that employees had illegally used $300 worth of water at the District to grow trees for their own use.
Robert Price and ESI were also involved in a Grossmont Union School District case in 2009 when a report it released was criticized as reaching “unqualified and contemptible conclusions”. The law firm representing Grossmont in that case was also Stutz Artiano Shinoff