Unraveling A Scandal, Part Two
Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Special Feature How To Uncover A Scandal From Your Couch, Part One
A how-to guide for unraveling a San Diego campaign finance scandal involving a straw donor, a "foreign national" and local politicians.
On Monday, inewsource showed how reporters used public records available online to unravel the city’s current scandal. Simply by using the unsealed federal complaint, the San Diego City Clerk’s website and a few other sites, inewsource was able to figure out the identity of the undisclosed politicians, money men and companies involved.
We’ve updated the story to show the second half of the investigation — how we figured out the second candidate, the extent of the foreign national’s network, and more.
As a recap, we now know the name of the foreign national (Susumo Azano), his independent expenditure committee (Airsam), the straw donor (Marc Chase), Candidate 1 (Bonnie Dumanis), and Candidate 3 (Bob Filner).
Here are the main takeaways from the complaint as it relates to Candidate 2:
First, the complaint identifies Candidate 2 as "a candidate for federal elective office during the 2012 general election cycle."
Second, the complaint alleged that "bank records show that in or about September and October 2012, the Foreign National gave money to the Straw Donor... While the various checks cleared, the Straw Donor wrote a $30,000 check to a political party committee associated with Candidate 2's campaign."
So, we know five things about Candidate 2:
- He was a candidate for federal office.
- He was running in the 2012 general election.
- It was Ernesto Encinas who approached a representative of his campaign about a contribution.
- The straw donor--who we have since identified as Marc Chase--gave $30,000 to a political party committee allied with Candidate 2's campaign.
- The $30,000 contribution came in either September or October, 2012.
The first clue -- 'federal office' -- tells us that we want to search campaign contributions at the federal level. All campaign contributions at the federal level are hosted on FEC.gov, the government-run website for the Federal Election Commission. And while that site does allow for limited searching of campaign contributions, there are several more user-friendly options out there. One is OpenSecrets.org — the website of the nonprofit, open-government group the Center for Responsive Politics. So, surf on over to OpenSecrets.org (people still say "surf," right?).
Select “POLITICIANS & ELECTIONS.” Scroll down the page and select “Donor Lookup.”
Now, what else do we know about the alleged transaction involving Candidate 2?
The candidate was running in the 2012 election. So, select the check box for “2012.” We know Marc Chase (or one of his companies) is the straw donor. So, type “Chase, Marc” in the search bar.
And what do you know? Right there at the top of the results is Marc Chase of La Jolla, CA–Symbolic Motors. He gave $30,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on September 30, 2012. That fits the time frame hinted at in the complaint.
So, we know the political party committee Chase donated to but we still don’t know who Candidate 2 is.
What else does the complaint tell us? Well, it tells us that Ernesto Encinas was the individual who approached Candidate 2 about making a donation. So, who did Encinas donate to in the 2012 election cycle? If you search his name on OpenSecrets.org, you get two contributions— one in June, 2011 and one in August, 2012 — to Juan Vargas, now the San Diego-area Congressman.
That's about the extent of what we can uncover from the federal complaint, but there is more you can do on your own now that we know the players.
For example, we can explore the world of Susumo Azano and look at his connections. Did any of them give to the same candidates? The short answer is yes, and here's a quick way to do that:
Go back to Wysk.com and type in Susumo's name. Here are just three of his LLCs:
Margarita Hester de Azano and Elizabeth Jovita Lugo are named as officers for some of the LLCs. If we go back to the San Diego City Clerk’s website and download the 2013 campaign contribution data, we’ll find these two as having donated to Bonnie Dumanis’ re-election campaign. See?
If we look into Marc Chase a bit more, we find that his employees have donated to Dumanis as well. How do we know the names of his employees? Simply by browsing through his Symbolic Motor Car Company website:
Pop some of those names into the databases we've used and explore.
There's obviously a lot more to look at, but we hope this exercise has helped you understand a bit more about investigating through public websites. To dig deeper, try your hand at submitting a California Public Records Act request to any local or state government entity for almost any information they keep. If you need a primer on the CPRA, head to our resources page to learn more about the law and even file a request yourself. Then let us know how it goes!