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San Diego Politicians Return Illegal Campaign Donations; Third Man Charged In Conspiracy

Federal officials confirm U. S. Attorney Duffy has recused herself from case

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Congressman Juan Vargas said he'll return any money his campaign might have received from a Mexican businessman at the center of a federal campaign finance probe.

A former U.S. Attorney said the former San Diego mayoral candidates did not violate any law if they didn’t know the source of the money was illegal.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Facebook

Retired San Diego police detective Ernesto Encinas is the head of security for Mexican national Jose Susumo Azano Matsura.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Ravi Singh/Wikipedia

Ravneet Singh is shown outside the U.S. Capitol in this undated photo.


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

Vargas did not confirm that his campaign had in fact received the funds, but a source told KPBS that Vargas is "Candidate 2" listed in a federal complaint unsealed this week.

The complaint said retired San Diego police Detective Ernesto Encinas approached Candidate 2's campaign for federal office in 2012 to offer a contribution on behalf of a foreign national, now confirmed to be Mexican billionaire Jose Susomo Azano Matsura.

The campaign told Encinas, the complaint states, that he would have to show proof of a green card before Azano could contribute legally.

Soon afterward, the complaint said, the foreign national gave money to a "straw donor," who deposited a check into one of his corporations. The government said the straw donor wrote a $30,000 check to a political party committee connected to Candidate 2's campaign.

"Transparency is crucial to an individual's faith in their elected officials and their government," Vargas said in a written statement. "That is why I am shocked at these claims and, if true am offended by the actions of these individuals. I have also requested that if any funds have been contributed to my past or current campaigns from said individuals, they be immediately returned."

According to the complaint, campaign web services company owner Ravneet Singh and Encinas conspired to direct $500,000 of foreign money into federal elections and San Diego mayoral candidates in 2012 and 2013. San Diego lobbyist Marco Polo Cortes was arrested this week and also charged in the conspiracy.

Foreign nationals are prohibited from contributing to political campaigns at any government level.

KPBS has confirmed that the candidates identified in the federal complaint only as Candidates 1-4, were San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, Vargas, former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner and former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher.

Dumanis, through her campaign consultant Jennifer Tierney, said she followed the law and did not coordinate with the independent committee that prosecutors said received the money during her unsuccessful bid for San Diego mayor in 2012.

Tierney said that Encinas and his wife, Sharon, each contributed $700 to Dumanis's June 2013 campaign to be re-elected district attorney. That money was returned Wednesday.

Fletcher has also said he did not receive contributions from people named in the complaint.

Former San Diego U.S. Attorney Peter Nunez said Wednesday the former mayoral candidates did not violate any law if they didn't know the source of the money was illegal.

"If you knowingly receive illegal money, you are as guilty as the people who provided it," Nunez said. "If they had no knowledge, then they have no liability. Presumably, they should return the money."

Interim San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria also received a $500 donation from Encinas, the former police detective. He has returned that money.

Meanwhile, federal officials confirmed that U. S. Attorney Laura Duffy has recused herself from the case on the advice of the Justice Department.

"When the subject investigation began, U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy sought guidance from Department of Justice officials concerning whether she should be recused from the Southern District of California's criminal investigation into campaign finance irregularities," Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Blair Perez said in a written statement. "While Duffy did not believe an actual conflict of interest existed, she felt recusal was appropriate based on the possible appearance of a conflict."

The U.S. Attorney's Office did not respond to a query asking why Duffy sought recusal advice in the first place.

In 2012, Duffy helped organize a political forum at her temple in Del Cerro. Then-mayoral candidate Filner became agitated at the event during an exchange with opponent then-City Councilman Carl DeMaio. Later, Duffy sent DeMaio's campaign an email apologizing for Filner's behavior and said he embarrassed himself.

First Assistant U.S. Attorney Cindy Cipriani reportedly will fill in for Duffy on the case.


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Photo of Amita Sharma

Amita Sharma
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs an investigative reporter for KPBS, I've helped expose political scandals and dug into intractable issues like sex trafficking. I've raised tough questions about how government treats foster kids. I've spotlighted the problem of pollution in poor neighborhoods. And I've chronicled corporate mistakes and how the public sometimes ends up paying for them.

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