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District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis today announced criminal charges against five people, including current and former officials at Sweetwater Union High School District in the South Bay.

“The widespread corruption we uncovered during our investigation of this case is outrageous and shameful,” U-T San Diego quoted Dumanis as saying. “For years public officials regularly accepted what amounted to bribes in exchange for their votes on multimillion-dollar construction projects.”

It’s the first major announcement from the Public Integrity Unit in the last three years. As we reported last year, the unit, which Dumanis set up with much fanfare in 2007, has been noticeably quiet since the controversial 2008 prosecution of Chula Vista City Councilman Steve Castaneda.

As we pointed out in our story last April, only three of the 88 prosecutions Dumanis claimed as public integrity cases actually involved politicians or public officials, the stated targets of the Public Integrity Unit. And Dumanis was also noticeably absent from the prosecution of disgraced former redevelopment officials Carolyn Y. Smith and Dante Dayacap, who in November pleaded guilty to embezzlement of public funds. Dumanis is now running for San Diego mayor.

Kudos is due to the U-T San Diego, which uncovered the shenanigans at Sweetwater that form the basis for the 26 felony charges announced today.

The U-T’s Watchdog Team revealed that officials at the school district were wined and dined by contractors seeking work from the district. And they found some scandalous details, including the fact that contractors were invited to the former superintendent’s daughter’s bridal shower. The invitation noted that the shower would include a “money tree” for the bride-to-be.

We also have done some reporting into contracting concerns at Sweetwater. Our story in August 2009 revealed that district officials repeatedly ignored staff recommendations for choosing consultants and attorneys to advise them on spending more than $600 million in construction bond money.

According to the U-T, today’s charges were “a dramatic start to what prosecutors say could be a widening corruption scandal rocking South Bay campuses.”

Will Carless is an investigative reporter at voiceofsandiego.org currently covering education. You can reach him at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5670.

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Will Carless

Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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