Will More Indictments Come In San Diego Campaign Scandal?
One year after federal prosecutors accused a Mexican tycoon and others of campaign finance crimes, a question remains: Is there enough evidence to charge the politicians who benefited from the money?
Prosecutors have revealed almost nothing in the past 12 months about whether they have a case against former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner or District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis — both beneficiaries of the scheme.
In a complaint unsealed last January, the government alleged that Mexican businessman Jose Susumo Azano Matsura contributed $340,000 through straw donors to Filner’s mayoral bid three years ago. Foreign nationals are barred from donating to U.S. campaigns.
Prosecutors allege Azano gave about $190,000 of that money to web services company ElectionMall for social media spending. But prosecutors said no one reported the contribution on Filner’s campaign disclosures.
Azano also established an independent expenditure committee for Dumanis when she ran for mayor in 2012. Azano then gave the committee $100,000. The complaint says Azano paid another $100,000 to ElectionMall owner Ravneet Singh, again for social media services. And as in the case of Filner, prosecutors say the spending never appeared on public filings of Dumanis’ campaign expenditures.
This raises a central question for prosecutors, said Tom McNamara, a former federal prosecutor in San Diego who has been following the case.
“Do they know that this foreign national is actually putting money into their campaigns?” McNamara said. “It looks like Azano took a number of measures to hide his behind-the-scenes orchestrating of campaign contributions.”
Critics have alleged that Dumanis at least had a heads-up that Azano was involved in aiding her mayoral run.
In May 2012, San Diego City Beat reported that a company controlled by Azano had contributed $100,000 to a political action committee called "San Diegans for Bonnie Dumanis.”
The article, however, quoted a campaign consultant incorrectly stating that Azano had a green card.
Dumanis has denied any wrongdoing. By law, candidates can’t coordinate with independent committees created to support them. But election experts say candidates can publicly disavow the money.
Aside from the alleged donations, Dumanis and Filner visited Azano on separate occasions at his Coronado home.
“I think they’re both serious sets of facts,” McNamara said. “You’ve got politicians meeting with a foreign national who is otherwise, at least allegedly, contributing funds in surreptitious ways to each of their campaigns.”
But there are some distinctions.
Last year, prosecutors told a judge Azano wanted to transform San Diego’s bayfront into Miami West. Prosecutors said Filner told Azano he lacked power over bayfront development. But Filner allegedly said he might be able delay progress on the Navy Broadway Complex to help Azano get control of the lease.
McNamara called that statement, if true, damning.
“In one instance you have Filner, who is saying I can’t take full public action on behalf of the port but I can delay things, so there does appear to be some kind of quid pro quo,” McNamara said. “Dumanis, however, while I don’t see that quid pro quo, I do see some very serious concerns about her conduct as well.”
Dumanis accompanied Azano to a meeting with San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore, according to the Voice of San Diego. And she wrote a letter of recommendation on behalf of Azano’s son to the University of San Diego.
Azano also allegedly gave $30,000 through a straw donor to a political party committee associated with Rep. Juan Vargas, D-San Diego.
Azano has pleaded not guilty to injecting $600,000 into local campaigns through straw donors. He blames the government’s investigation of him on pressure from Sempra Energy. He financed a landowner in Mexico who had a property dispute with the utility company.
Prosecutors, in turn, filed court papers asserting that Azano had been on the government’s radar for alleged ties to drug smuggling long before the Sempra conflict. A judge denied Azano’s request for evidence relating to Sempra.
Despite Azano’s aggressive stance in court filings, McNamara said he wouldn’t be surprised if Azano was simultaneously trying to cut a plea deal.
“You want to inflict a little bit of pain and let the government understand that, look, if we’re going to fight, we’re going to fight hard and it’s not going to be an easy win. At the same, I’d like to talk peace," McNamara said.
One big incentive for an Azano plea is possible cooperating witnesses. Two players in the case have pleaded guilty. They are car dealer co-owner Marc Chase, who has acknowledged being a straw donor for Azano. Retired San Diego police Detective Ernie Encinas also has admitted participating in the conspiracy and filing a false tax return.
The next hearing in the case is later this month.