Escondido Union School District’s circus came to Vista Superior Court Thursday, but it was no laughing matter as embattled school trustee Jose Fragozo pleaded not guilty to 13 election fraud felony counts.
Subdued and wearing a dark coat, Fragozo stood in front of arraigning Judge James A. Mangione around 2 p.m. at Department 14, beginning a process that will see a readiness hearing on March 9 followed by a preliminary hearing on March 23, and possible two-day trial.
Without objection, Mangione set Fragozo, 50, free without bail at the end of a 5-minute hearing. Should Fragozo be found guilty, he could face up to nine years, four months in prison.
Outside the courthouse, Fragozo’s attorney, Manuel Torres, and San Diego Deputy District Attorney Leon Schorr gave dueling news conferences. The news, not surprisingly, was that Torres said the prosecution was unfair and Schorr said the state would prove its case in court.
“Mr. Fragozo is very disappointed the public is being made to pay for nothing,” Torres said. “We believe this will lead to a full exoneration.”
Schorr referred questions about the action’s timing to publicly released search warrants citing concerns about Fragozo’s residence dating to a July 16, 2012 complaint. That complaint came following the changing of board elections from district-wide contests to specific districts. Fragozo’s supporters at the time said the change came about to get him out of office.
Investigators also said Joan Gardner, recently named EUSD board president, wrote a letter in July 2012 to the Secretary of State’s Office about Fragozo’s alleged lack of proper residency.
Search warrants filed by the District Attorney’s office said its investigators had been looking into Fragozo’s reported 305 South Maple St. address since Aug. 31, 2015. He changed his address to that apartment two days before filing his candidacy papers on July 14, 2012.
Fragozo also owns a four-bedroom, 3,600-square-foot home at 28346 Crooked oak Lane in Hidden Meadows. His wife lives at that home, and Fragozo said they were separated. She attended the Thursday arraignment hearing, sitting by Fragozo.
State law says candidates must live at only one residence in the district they seek to represent.
Past as prologue
This is the latest in a series of EUSD proceedings that began Dec. 2, 2015 with superintendent Luis Rankins-Ibarra and four colleagues filing a temporary restraining order to keep Fragozo 300 yards from school property and meetings.
Ibarra et. al. contended Fragozo behaved in a threatening manner while discussing various school issues. Those included Fragozo, according to court accounts, not receiving board agenda packets and his questioning of the direction of district English as a Second Language efforts and declining school enrollment.
Fragozo flatly denied Ibarra’s allegations, saying he merely disagreed with Ibarra and company, and they were blowing up the situation to silence him.
Hearings have proceeded this year on whether to make the temporary order stick permanently with the school district reportedly offering a compromise deal keeping Fragozo away from school property for a “three month cooling off period.”
Fragozo turned down the offer, saying he had done nothing wrong. Superior Court Judge Richard Whitney extended the temporary order to Feb. 8 after which time hearings will proceed.
The 13 criminal charges filed by the DA Thursday comes with far more serious consequences should a judge, or jury, find against Fragozo. He could be sentenced to as much as nine years in prison, and lose the right to seek elective office, or even vote, as a convicted felon.