Originally published January 21, 2014 at 7:20 p.m., updated January 22, 2014 at 4:09 p.m.
The owner of a campaign services company is accused of conspiring with a former San Diego Police detective to illegally funnel hundreds of thousand of dollars to local candidates from a wealthy Mexican businessman.
Under federal law, foreign nationals are banned from contributing to American political campaigns.
Federal prosecutors said Ravneet Singh, owner of ElectionMall in Washington — along with former Detective Ernesto Encinas — knew the donations were illegal but said the two men used a “series of increasingly complex techniques,” including shell companies, to hide nearly $300,000 in campaign contributions.
The U.S. Attorney's Office said in a statement:
Singh conspired with former San Diego Police detective Ernesto Encinas and others to funnel more than $500,000 of illegal foreign money into San Diego municipal and federal campaigns, primarily in 2012 and 2013. Singh’s company, ElectionMall, Inc., was also charged as a defendant.
Prosecutors said the contributions were made by a wealthy Mexican businessman. Federal officials declined to name the businessman, but KPBS confirmed through a confidential source he is Jose Susomo Azano Matsura. The donations from Azano were first reported in 2012 by San Diego CityBeat.
KPBS has also independently confirmed through the same source that the candidates were San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner and former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher who ran for mayor in 2012 and in the special mayoral election last year.
A complaint unsealed in court Tuesday states that in 2011 the businessman became interested in influencing San Diego electoral politics. Prosecutors said Encinas made inquiries and learned that foreign nationals cannot donate to U.S. political campaigns.
According to the complaint and sources, Azano and Encinas then created an independent expenditure committee. Such committees can be used to pay for political advertising. The government stated the businessman gave $100,000 to the committee through an American shell company.
Prosecutors said ultimately the committee made $114,000 in expenditures to an unidentified person known only Candidate 1. KPBS has confirmed that candidate was Dumanis.
According to public filings, the committee spent about $86,000 on mailers and related services between May 20-31 in 2012.
The government said email records indicate that in early 2012, Azano agreed to pay Singh and his company ElectionMall $100,000 for social media services to help "Candidate 1." The complaint states that Singh, Encinas and others agreed not to report the campaign-related spending in a public filing.
Dumanis said through a campaign consultant Tuesday her campaign followed the law and didn't coordinate with the independent committee.
Fletcher has said he never took money from people named in the complaint.
Filner has not responded to a request for comment.
The complaint states that the businessman gave to other candidates in addition to those who ran for mayor in 2012 and in last year's special election. KPBS has confirmed that one of the candidates is Congressman Juan Vargas. His office has not responded to a request for comment.
On Wednesday, it was reported Vargas would return approximately $3,500 in campaign funding.
San Diego interim Mayor Todd Gloria and former San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio also are each returning a $500 donation stemming from the investigation.
The U.S. Attorney's office said in a press release that Encinas wanted the next mayor to fire San Diego Police Chief Bill Lansdowne and pick his replacement.