Mexican Billionaire-Linked Donations To Dumanis’ 2012 Mayoral Campaign Higher Than Thought
Even though a Mexican businessman convicted of illegally pumping cash into San Diego campaigns went to prison in October, his shadow may linger over an upcoming county supervisor’s race.
In early 2014, as legal charges piled up against Jose Susumo Azano Matsura, then District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said she would give $10,000 in Azano-linked money to her 2012 failed mayoral campaign to charity.
But a KPBS review of campaign disclosures, federal documents and San Diego City Ethics Commission records show that figure is nearly twice that amount, if not more.
The review found that at least $17,500 in money given to Dumanis' campaign for mayor came from Azano’s relatives, employees, straw donors or people connected to them. A straw donor is someone who gives illegally by using another person’s money, in this case Azano’s.
The analysis also showed that another $17,950 came from former San Diego police detective Ernie Encinas’ family members, friends or people with business ties to him. Many of them gave on the same day and contributed the maximum amount of $500. Encinas acted as a liaison between Azano and Dumanis's campaign. He admitted violating campaign finance laws in a plea deal.
By law, candidates are not required to return questionable donations unless they knew the money was illicit. Dumanis was never accused of knowing the true source of the straw donations. During Azano's 2016 trial, Dumanis denied knowing he was a foreign national but testified she was aware he was helping her bid to become mayor.
And Dumanis has long since closed out her 2012 mayoral campaign.
“Some decide that returning the money is the right thing to do for not only moral or ethical but practical political reasons,” said former California Fair Political Practices Commission Chairman Dan Schnur.
He said those practical political reasons come into play if the person is running for office.
“There’s an issue of perception here," he said. "And ultimately it’s up to the candidate to decide him or herself whether that perception is sufficiently damaging to their election prospects or to their reputation to require returning the funds to their original sources. There’s no absolute.”
KPBS reached out to Dumanis to ask her what plans, if any, she had for the Azano-related money. Her political consultant Jason Cabel Roe responded asking for extra time to reply. But one day later, Roe sent an email to KPBS stating, “Ya, let’s just ignore her. This is BS and really dumb.”
KPBS sent an email back to Roe asking if that was his official statement. The station did not receive a response.
Apart from the Azano-linked money, Dumanis received $6,000 in straw contributions from two towing companies cited by the Ethics Commission.
Dumanis’s opponent in the supervisor's race, former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, also received $3,000 in straw donations from a towing company during his unsuccessful run for mayor in 2012.
Fletcher said he did not know the contributions came from straw donors. He said he won’t reopen his 2012 mayoral campaign to return the money.
“What I’d rather see is rigorous enforcement, and I would rather see donors who do things wrong punished to the maximum extent allowable by law, and if candidates do something wrong, I’d like to see them punished as well.”
Fletcher was fined $3,000 by the Ethics Commission after his campaign for mayor in the special San Diego mayoral election in 2013 accepted three contributions of $1,000 from Fernando Aguerre, who co-founded the flip-flop maker Reef.
The Ethics Commission said Aguerre, through his assistant, made the contributions electronically using his personal credit card but he did so in the names of his three children.
"Notwithstanding any plan that may have existed for Aguerre's children to reimburse Aguerre for these contributions, and despite the fact that the children had access to funds in a family trust, the children ultimately never used their funds to reimburse Aguerre or otherwise make any contributions to the Fletcher Committee," the Ethics Commission wrote in its order.
Fletcher said instructions had been given to the children's' financial adviser that donations in their names had been made and to transfer the money appropriately. But Fletcher said that financial adviser failed to follow through.
"The city Ethics Commission came in and saw that the money had not been moved as instructed which meant that it was improper," Fletcher said. "The donor was fined and our campaign responded appropriately. In that case, there was no malicious intent."
As for whether Dumanis should give the more than $35,000 in Azano-Encinas related money to charities, Fletcher said he’d rather see an inquiry.
“I think there are still a lot of unanswered questions on what happened in that case which is why I would like to see the city Ethics Commission do a full and complete investigation in the entirety of the Azano-Encinas issue and its full impact on city races and potentially other races.”
KPBS reached out to Ethics Commission Executive Director Stacey Fulhorst to ask whether the department had ever investigated Dumanis for the high volume of disguised giving to her mayoral campaign. But Fulhorst declined an interview.
In addition to the several thousand dollars in straw donations, Azano had also contributed $100,000 to an independent expenditure committee he set up to help Dumanis' campaign for mayor. Additionally, he financed at least $100,000 in social media services, according to court documents.
Schnur said these facts taken together might warrant more scrutiny.
“On each of these, I should stress that there is no evidence that a candidate him or herself would necessarily know about the true source of the funds," Schnur said. "But each of them increases the possibility that an oversight entity might be more inclined to take a closer look.”