11:07 PM PST on Saturday, December 19, 2009

By DUANE W. GANG
The Press-Enterprise

The high-profile criminal charges came just weeks apart — one after the other — and now threaten the San Jacinto Valley’s reputation for years to come, residents, local officials and experts say.

Public officials at five prominent institutions were ensnared in bribery, corruption and campaign-finance scandals that could send them to prison.

Now, some residents worry the spotlight might hurt the community’s ability to attract new jobs and residents and stick the region with a corruption label they won’t be able to easily shed.

“It makes us a laughingstock,” said Glen Holmes, 60, of Hemet.

First, the chairman of the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians, which runs a popular casino and is a major source of charitable donations, was charged in late October as part of a federal criminal indictment accusing him of accepting more than $250,000 in bribes from tribal vendors.

Then, in mid-November, nine people — including four of the five members of the San Jacinto City Council and one member of the city’s school board — were charged in a 155-count indictment by a Riverside County grand jury.

A total of 15 people, including several prominent developers and the co-founder of the San Jacinto Chamber of Commerce, are charged in the case, which accuses them of conspiring to skirt state campaign-finance laws.

Three weeks later, the police chief at Mt. San Jacinto College was charged with eight felonies, including bribery and perjury, for allegedly steering towing contracts to a company that gave him gifts.

San Jacinto resident Bob Stone said it is a sad day for the community.

“The news has traveled all over California, because of the political corruption we have been tagged with,” he told council members at a recent meeting.

All of those charged have either pleaded not guilty or still must appear in court to enter pleas.

Robert Salgado Sr. is on a leave of absence as Soboba tribal chairman. He has pleaded not guilty to the federal charges.

San Jacinto Mayor Dale Stubblefield has declared his innocence but said he will not seek re-election. Councilmen Jim Ayres, John Mansperger and Jim Potts also face charges, as does Nancy Ayres, a San Jacinto school board member and executive director of the chamber.

None has resigned from office.

At Mt. San Jacinto College, Police Chief Kevin Segawa resigned earlier this month amid the criminal charges. He had been on paid administrative leave since July when the district attorney’s investigation became known.

Karin Marriott, a college spokeswoman, said she does not think the scandals will affect the school and its ability to attract students and faculty.

“The college district extends from Calimesa to Cabazon and all the way down to Temecula,” she said Friday. “Students need the services we provide.”

Threatened Reputation

San Jacinto-area residents and local officials say the community in recent years has made strides in commercial, residential and retail development as well as in improving the region’s quality of life.

The city has seen its population boom from less than 24,000 in 2000 to nearly 40,000 today. There are new stores, businesses and shopping opportunities. A host of development projects are on the drawing board.

“A quaint and revitalized Main Street, affordable housing, shopping venues, and excellent golf represent a few of the many amenities to enjoy in San Jacinto,” the city’s Web site advertises.

Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone, who represents the area, said the accusations are a distraction that could “interrupt the progress of the city moving forward.”

Residents are worried, too. More than 200 attended the Dec. 10 City Council meeting, the first since the Nov. 12 indictments against the councilmen.

Most expressed anger that the elected officials had tarnished the city’s reputation. Three of the council members — Ayres, Potts and Stubblefield — were served with recall papers during the meeting.

“It puts a black eye on the reputation of the city,” former San Jacinto Councilman Robert Ritchie said. “And the investigation is not over.”

Attorney and San Jacinto-area resident Marvin Jeglin said the charges put the community in the “corrupt” category.

‘Disservice to City’

“You read about New Jersey. Detroit. You read about Gov. (Mark) Sanford in South Carolina. All these public officials are trying to operate under this cloud” of corruption and ethical violations, Jeglin said.

“It is a disservice to the city,” he said.

Still, some residents said they believe San Jacinto will rebound, and others remain staunch defenders of those accused, arguing the allegations are politically motivated.

“I feel San Jacinto — and I have lived here 20 years — the people here are strong and we will get through this,” resident Colleen Margis said. “We are in the worst, and we will get better from here.”

Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, said a poor reputation can translate into real negatives for communities.

“It makes people feel less confident in government. It probably makes some businesses reluctant to invest in the community,” he said. “It is going to be a very difficult time until the case is resolved or these people resign.”

Stone, the county supervisor, insists all of the officials and others caught up in the probe are innocent until proven guilty, and he continues to work with them on city and county issues.

He said he doesn’t think the scandals will keep new residents from moving to the San Jacinto Valley. They will be more interested in crime rates, parks, schools and other quality-of-life measures.

But large businesses, developers and others who regularly interact with city government might second-guess a move to the valley, he said.

There will be a stigma that they won’t be treated fairly or would have to do something extraordinary to get their project approved, he said.

Holmes, who supports a recall of the indicted councilmen, agreed. “If I want to bring a project here, how do I know it will be handled properly?” he questioned.

Moving On

Holmes said the community must make the scandal “yesterday’s news.”

“It is a great place to live,” he said. “It is not a little Mafia or a little Chicago.”

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