Questions Dog Bonnie Dumanis On San Diego Campaign Finance Probe
Campaign Finance Experts Say There Were Key Warning Signs The Funds Might Not Be Legal
Just days after federal prosecutors unsealed a complaint alleging that more than $500,000 in foreign money had been channeled into San Diego elections, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis sent a message to her supporters.
"If the allegations are true, I want these individuals to be held responsible for violating the law and trying to pull a fast one on the people of San Diego," Dumanis wrote. "I'm glad federal authorities are focused on getting to the bottom of this."
According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, Mexican billionaire Jose Susomo Azano Matsura’s illegal contributions included:
• A $100,000 contribution to a SuperPAC;
• $100,000 in unreported compensation for campaign services;
• A $30,000 contribution to a political party committee;
• Another $190,000 in unreported compensation for campaign services;
• A $150,000 contribution to another SuperPAC;
• A $30,000 contribution to another political party committee;
• The promise of a "mill" in additional contributions.
One of the campaigns the complaint targeted benefited Dumanis herself in her bid for San Diego mayor in 2012.
And the federal complaint wasn't the first time the foreign donations supporting her mayoral run came to light.
In May 2012, San Diego CityBeat reported that a company named Airsam had contributed $100,000 to a political action committee called "San Diegans for Bonnie Dumanis."
The article stated that Airsam was controlled by Mexican billionaire Jose Susumo Azano Matsura.
Should Dumanis have raised questions about the money? Responses are mixed.
Bob Brewer, a former federal prosecutor who is challenging Dumanis' re-election bid this year, thinks the matter is clear.
"It was a red flag," he said. "There should have been an investigation by her campaign or herself. There were a lot of issues raised by that article."
Dumanis declined several requests for an interview with KPBS on the matter, but her campaign spokeswoman pointed out that Dumanis had no legal control over money given to a PAC. State law prohibits candidates from coordinating with independent committees formed to support them.
Former California Fair Political Practices Chairman Dan Schnur says Dumanis still could have disavowed the money.
"What many candidates have done in both parties in other venues is when an independent committee designed to help them is acting in a way in which they disapprove, they have made public statements and said things like I certainly hope my supporters would do this and not do that," Schnur said.
San Diego State University political scientist Brian Adams, who studies campaign finance, contended that a $100,000 donation had to have come to the campaign's attention.
"When people make donations of this size, obviously they're trying to influence elected officials," Adams said. "If the elected officials don't know who you are, that donation is kind of useless. So clearly the donor in this case would have tried to make it known to Bonnie Dumanis or allies of Bonnie Dumanis that he was doing this on her behalf."
Taking it a step further, Adams added, "if a candidate knows that independent expenditures being made on her behalf are being laundered and being funneled through a third party, clearly she would have an ethical responsibility to talk to the people who are running the independent expenditure committee and say, 'You know you shouldn’t be doing this.’"
Dumanis is not accused of breaking the law. Nor is Azano, who grew up in the Mexican state of Jalisco, and made billions in surveillance and security technology. He lives part-time in Coronado. Prosecutors have not even named Azano, but many news organizations, including KPBS media partner inewsource, have traced the donations to him.
According to the federal complaint, Azano created the PAC working on behalf of Dumanis, with former San Diego police detective Ernesto Encinas — who has been charged with conspiring to pump foreign money into local campaigns. The complaint also alleges that another $100,000 was spent on display, banner and text ads for Dumanis’s campaign but kept off public disclosure filings.
Dumanis has acknowledged meeting Azano at his home early in her 2012 mayoral run. She also said she knows retired police officer Encinas and has met with Ravneet Singh, Washington, D.C.-based "campaign guru," who also has been charged in the case.
Prosecutors said in court last month that the foreign national believed to be Azano wanted to transform San Diego’s bayfront into "Miami West." The government also says Encinas — who has business ties with nightclubs — wanted San Diego Police Chief Bill Lansdowne fired and replaced with someone who would more easily grant liquor licenses.
The federal complaint also states that tens of thousands of dollars in illegal donations were made to benefit other candidates believed to be disgraced former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner and Congressman Juan Vargas.
About $340,000 in illegal donations were allegedly made to Filner and $30,000 was contributed to a political party committee tied to Vargas. The filing states overtures were made to another former mayoral candidate whom sources say is Nathan Fletcher.
In addition to Encinas and Singh, Marco Polo Cortes, a San Diego lobbyist who was a Chula Vista planning commissioner, is charged with illegal campaign contributions. He and Singh are scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday.