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Two Dozen Donors In Dumanis’ Mayoral Run Linked To Key Figure In Azano Case

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Ernesto Encinas, pictured, is a former San Diego police detective.

The donors are tied to former San Diego Police Det. Ernie Encinas, who was scheduled to be sentenced Monday in connection with the campaign finance scandal involving Mexican businessman Jose Susumo Azano Matsura.

It’s been more than one week since a Mexican businessman was convicted of scheming to illegally give more than half a million dollars in the 2012 San Diego mayoral race. A central figure in that case was scheduled to be sentenced Monday. KPBS Investigative Reporter Amita Sharma spoke with editor Tom Fudge about the sentencing of former San Diego Police Det. Ernie Encinas.

Tom Fudge: Amita, I understand Encinas’ sentencing was supposed to happen Monday but has now been pushed off to Jan. 9. Why?

Encinas worked with federal prosecutors in their case against Jose Susumo Azano Matsura. Encinas clandestinely recorded talks he had with Azano and others. Azano won’t be sentenced until Dec. 12. Usually, government cooperators who are themselves accused of wrongdoing don’t get sentenced until the people they helped get convicted are sentenced.

And there’s good reason for that, according to former federal prosecutor Rob Marasco.

“It’s very common for individuals who have cooperated with the government to be sentenced after the people they have cooperated against and have been convicted because it allows the court at the time of the cooperator’s sentencing an opportunity to assess how much cooperation the individual had provided to the government,” Marasco said.

TF: Now in Encinas’ case, he admitted to the wrongdoing, right?

Yes, Encinas pleaded guilty early on to conspiring to help get Azano’s foreign money into committees to help Bob Filner and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis when they ran for mayor back in 2012. He and Dumanis have known each other for years and prosecutors say Encinas and Azano created an independent expenditure committee to help get Dumanis elected as mayor. Encinas also admitted to tax fraud. The conspiracy charge carries a maximum term of five years in prison. And filing false tax returns comes with a three-year sentence.

Local criminal defense attorney Marc Carlos said it’s unlikely Encinas will get the maximum sentence on either of those charges. And he explained the process this way:

“The prosecutors will provide a letter to the court, which will be under seal and outline the extent of his cooperation and, more importantly, the value of his cooperation." Carlos said. "If his cooperation or the mere possibility of being a witness was enough to cause other people to plead guilty or to somehow affect the disposition of the case, then that has value to the prosecutor, that has value to the court as far as sentencing goes.”

TF: Amita, getting back to how Encinas helped Azano infuse cash into the campaigns of Filner and Dumanis, you went back and reviewed 2011 and 2012 campaign disclosures for Dumanis. What did you learn?

More than two dozen donors to Dumanis’ campaign had ties to Encinas. They were either related to Encinas, were friends with him, worked with him or for him. Most gave the maximum amount.

Just some background here, Tom, last month we did a story on about two dozen donors connected to Azano who gave to Dumanis’ mayoral campaign. We were able to tell the givers were actually straw donors by using Azano’s money based on documents filed by federal prosecutors, campaign finance disclosures and complaints filed by the San Diego Ethics Commission.

But in the case of the donors connected to Encinas, only three were flagged by the ethics commission. It’s curious. It could be the rest of the donors were legitimate. Prosecutors never introduced this information as evidence in Azano’s trial. Former prosecutor Marasco said even if the donors were suspect, there may be another reason the government didn’t pursue the issue in court.

“Either the government thought or suspected that Mr. Encinas and Mr. Azano might have been behind it but couldn’t prove it or they did suspect that Mr. Encinas was behind it but opted not to charge it as part of their plea deal,” Marasco said.

TF: Is it possible that Encinas was reimbursing these donors with his own money?

Unclear and probably unlikely. Encinas is a retired San Diego Police detective who probably gets a healthy pension but not enough to reimburse donors to political campaigns. It appears he has had some financial problems. Back in 2009, an unlawful detainer suit was filed against Encinas and his wife stating he owed less than $10,000 on a bill. Another action was filed against him and his wife for nonpayment on a credit card bill of nearly $5,000.

Things changed for Encinas when he went to work for Azano in 2011. Not only did Encinas own a private security firm and consulting business, but he also headed Azano’s security detail. Encinas admitted that Azano paid him $10,000 in cash off the books. Encinas also didn’t report $147,000 in cash payments in 2011 and about $75,000 in such payments in 2012. He’s agreed to pay the government back as restitution.

TF: What do people say about Encinas?

For one thing, they say he’s not very good with money.

But outside of being the go-between for Azano and the candidate campaigns, people who know Encinas say he’s a humble guy. He was not one of those cops who was on a power trip. They describe him as having a great sense of humor and someone who is always smiling. You know, Encinas worked in vice at the San Diego Police Department. One colleague who worked with him said there are two kinds of officers who work in vice — those who hate the nightclub industry and want no part of it and those who get close to the club owners and start liking that environment. He believes Encinas fell into the latter group. And ultimately, Encinas started working as a consultant for the clubs. The government said Encinas got involved in funding the mayoral campaigns because he wanted a new mayor to replace former Police Chief Bill Lansdowne with someone who wouldn’t be so tough on the industry.


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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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