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Mexican Tycoon Convicted Of Illegally Pumping Money Into San Diego Campaigns

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.

Mexican Tycoon Convicted Of Illegally Pumping Money Into San Diego Campaigns

GUEST:

Amita Sharma, investigative reporter, KPBS

Transcript

A federal jury convicted a Mexican tycoon Friday of illegally pumping over $500,000 into the San Diego mayoral race in 2012.

Jose Susumo Azano Matsura was convicted on all counts except a gun charge. Sentencing is set for Dec. 12.

"The jury's verdict confirms that a foreign national must not attempt to influence a United States election," said Executive Assistant United States Attorney Blair Perez.

Azano's attorney, Michael Wynne, told reporters outside court that he was "very disappointed" with the verdict.

"This the kind of case that will go to the United States Supreme Court and if necessary we will win it there," Wynne said.

The jury also found two others, social media services expert Ravneet Singh and Azano’s son Edward Susumo Azano Hester, guilty on several counts. The jury acquitted Hester on several charges tied to the falsification of campaign donation records. The jury deadlocked on other charges against Hester.

Singh's lawyer Michael Lipman said he will appeal the verdict.

"It would be gross malpractice if you don't appeal a criminal conviction," Lipman said. "I think there are a lot of appellate issues."

He declined to say what they were.

The jury acquitted San Diego lobbyist Marco Polo Cortes.

The jury deliberated for five days. Jury foreman Caesar Tornel said it was a difficult case.

"They did their best with what they had," Tornel said of the jurors. "There were a lot of different factors to consider."

He said he wondered why the candidates who received Azano's money - San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner -- did not face more legal scrutiny in the case.

"I just asked myself why they weren't here," Tornel said. "It showed me that they are a little bit above the law."

Federal election law bars foreign nationals from contributing to U.S. campaigns. Candidates are also prohibited from knowingly accepting such contributions.

Filner’s 2012 mayoral bid received more than $300,000 from Azano.

Dumanis’ 2012 mayoral campaign received $100,000 in social media services. But the work was never documented on campaign disclosures. Azano also started a political action committee for Dumanis’ mayoral effort and contributed $100,000 through a company he owned.

Dumanis also received several thousand dollars more from Azano through straw donors.

Several well-known politicians took the stand during the 5 ½ week trial including Dumanis. She testified she believed Azano was a U.S. citizen.

Little was learned during Dumanis’ testimony about why she thought Azano was a U.S. citizen and what she did to verify her belief.

The jury also never learned why Dumanis went to his home asking for crucial financing and how it came to be that 25 percent of the money in her campaign, came from Azano according to prosecutors, without her or her staff’s knowledge.

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

Dumanis characterized her meetings with Azano as "meet and greet" sessions.

San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore and former state Republican Party head Ron Nehring also testified during the trial.

But the prosecution never called former San Diego Police detective Ernie Encinas to the stand. He was widely viewed as a central player in the alleged conspiracy. According to the government, he was a key conduit between Azano and the campaigns of Filner and Dumanis. Prosecutors said Encinas helped Azano make the contributions.

Encinas pleaded guilty to tax fraud and conspiracy early on and was believed to be cooperating with the government.

The defense sought to pin the blame on Encinas. He was on the prosecution’s list of witnesses. The government opted not to call him. The defense told the jury that Encinas’s absence in the trial was enough to stir up reasonable doubt over the case.

The prosecution quickly countered that if defense lawyers thought Encinas could provide a shred of evidence that would help them, they were free to call him to the stand.

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