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Volume Of Dumanis Donors Linked To Mexican Businessman Renews Questions About What DA Knew

Dumanis Donors Linked To Mexican Businessman Renews Questions

Photo caption:

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Former San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis announces she is releasing three videos from officer-involved shootings, May 6, 2016.

Volume Of Dumanis Donors Linked To Mexican Businessman Renews Questions About What DA Knew

GUEST:

Amita Sharma, investigative reporter, KPBS

Transcript

San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis has cast herself as a victim of an alleged fundraising scheme by Mexican business mogul Jose Susumo Azano Matsura.

“I am so angry about all this,” Dumanis said during an interview with U-T TV in early 2014. “If somebody did what they are alleged to do, they should be held accountable for what they have done.”

Azano and three others are on trial in federal court for conspiring to illegally pump nearly $600,000 into San Diego political campaigns, including the district attorney’s failed bid for mayor in 2012.

Prosecutors say Azano laundered the money through straw donors — people who give using another person’s money, which is against the law. He also used a company to funnel some of the money, they say.

Campaign disclosure documents also point to a high volume of disguised giving to Dumanis. The illegal donations renew questions about what the district attorney knew of Azano’s role and what she should have known.

Federal election law is written to ensure that political races are decided by U. S. citizens, or at least legal residents.

Prosecutors told jurors in the trial that started three weeks ago that a full 25 percent of the money Dumanis received during her run for mayor came from Azano but never in his name.

“One donation coming from a straw donor is unacceptable,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “The fact that so many contributions corresponded with money that had been transferred to the donors from an outside source is a very alarming figure.”

The figure was even higher on a single day in December 2011, the same month prosecutors have said Dumanis went to Azano’s house looking for “crucial financing.”

KPBS matched the initials of alleged straw donors contained in court documents with Dumanis’ campaign disclosures and San Diego Ethics Commission records. KPBS found that 26 of the 61 donations — or 43 percent of the contributions she received that day — were from straw givers allegedly financed by Azano. The donors included a gas station manager, a homemaker and a grandmother with dementia. All gave the maximum amount of $500.

“It’s not a good fact for Ms. Dumanis, that’s for sure,” said Rob Marasco, a former federal prosecutor in San Diego. “Straw donor after straw donor. It certainly would make a prosecutor question and investigate further how directly involved she was in these types of contributions.”

Also, on that same day — Dec. 29, 2011 — an additional 14 donations came into Dumanis’ campaign from people tied to towing companies that have been investigated by the San Diego Ethics Commission for straw giving. The commission would not say whether the companies had been investigated for donations made on that particular day.

Marasco called the timing of the towing companies’ contributions curious.

“Whether it ends up being tied together, we will have to wait and see,” he said.

Dumanis hasn’t been charged with any wrongdoing in the case. She declined to speak to KPBS for this story. She said through a spokesman she won’t comment on a pending case.

But she has said her election staffers are sticklers for the rules.

”I am the DA,” Dumanis said in the 2014 U-T TV interview. “And I am very careful and my campaign team is very careful to make sure we don’t cross any lines.”

Dumanis has been subpoenaed as a witness in the case by Azano’s lawyer, who has said he wants her to testify that his client had nothing to do with her campaign.

Prosecutors have revealed that after Azano and Dumanis had that meeting in December, the businessman sent word to the district attorney that he would raise $100,000 for her mayoral campaign. He eventually set up a political action committee through a shell company to place the money, prosecutors say. Marasco said Dumanis’ visit, Azano’s alleged promise, the subsequent money through the PAC, and the high volume of contributions on one day for the maximum amount without a fundraiser should have triggered alarm bells for the district attorney.

It is illegal for a candidate to knowingly accept donations from a foreign national.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Mexican businessman José Susumo Azano Matsura, right, walks into the federal courthouse in downtown San Diego with his former attorney, Michael Wynne, July 27, 2016.

Big questions hanging over the case are what did Dumanis know of Azano’s residency status and was she really a victim of his alleged fundraising scheme or an active participant?

Marasco contends Dumanis should have known Azano was an ineligible foreign donor or at the very least checked.

“By reputation alone, this individual is known as a successful businessman in Mexico," he said. "The first thing she has to ask herself is, ‘OK, can he contribute to elections here in the United States?’”

Political consultant John Wainio testified during the trial that he asked Dumanis on the phone in early 2012 whether Azano had a green card. He told jurors all he got on the other end was silence.

Marasco said that silence could have legal implications for the district attorney.

“There is this concept in criminal law that if you’re confronted with an allegation and you provide a response of silence, that is you provide no response whatsoever, that could be deemed an admission of knowledge,” Marasco said. “In this context, it could mean that she knew that he did not have a green card. It could also mean that it had just dawned on her that she hadn’t thought of asking that question or is concerned that someone is now is asking that question. No matter what crossed her mind during those moments of silence, it doesn’t bode well.”

Since the indictments in the Azano case came down in 2014, Dumanis has changed her story a few times on the extent of her contact with Azano.

She first said she only met Azano once in December 2011. It came out later that she and San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore also met him on another occasion. Gore testified this month about that, saying Dumanis arranged and attended a meeting that included the sheriff and Azano.

Prosecutors also displayed an email she wrote to her campaign staff in which she referred to Azano as “Mr. A,” participated in a conference call with him and appeared excited about taking his advice on meeting a man she called “a master of Internet campaign stuff.” Azano bankrolled $100,000 of social media services performed by that man for Dumanis’ mayoral run. Her campaign never recorded the work on disclosure forms.

Dumanis also did a favor for Azano. She wrote a letter of recommendation to the University of San Diego for the billionaire businessman’s son.

Charles LaBella, a former U.S. attorney in San Diego, said despite those actions by Dumanis the onus is still on the donor to abide by election law, not the political candidate — but only up to a point.

“There is a threshold whereby the law can say and a jury can say, 'Look, there was so much evidence here that you knew or should have known and therefore we’re going to charge you with the intent you say you didn’t have,'" LaBella said. “The law says, ‘Wait a minute. You can’t just turn a blind eye to all this evidence in front of you.’”

In law, that’s known as “conscious avoidance.” Prosecutors would not comment on whether Dumanis did that in her interactions with Azano.

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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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