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There’s a lot we don’t know about the unfolding scandal involving four San Diego politicians. One thing we do know is District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis’ relationship with those implicated goes back far and has continued into her current re-election campaign.
Dumanis told VOSD she’s met Susumo Azano, reportedly the unnamed Mexican national in the federal complaint who’s alleged to have bankrolled a scheme to illegally influence local elections, including Dumanis’ own failed mayoral bid. She also said she has met the two people the complaint actually names, Ernesto Encinas and Ravneet Singh.
Dumanis first met Encinas, she said, when he was working as a San Diego police officer, before he retired in 2009. They were involved in cases together, and she said she’s met with him time to time since then. She calls him “Ernie.”
Dumanis said she learned about the federal probe when news broke late Tuesday. She’s not accused of any wrongdoing.
“I didn’t know anything about the investigation until I read it today,” Dumanis said late Tuesday.
The complaint says that during Dumanis’ 2012 mayoral campaign, a wealthy Mexican national began illegally funding a political action committee supporting her candidacy. Encinas, the complaint says, worked as private security for the Mexican national, who has a home in Coronado.
Azano is chairman of Grupo Azano, whose clients include private and public entities in Mexico for construction services. Another Azano company provides computer security services for border protection, cybersecurity and surveillance. In 2011, Sempra Energy accused him of being the driving force behind a shutdown of one of its plants north of Ensenada, Mexico.
According to the complaint filed Tuesday, Azano gave $100,000 to the newly created political action committee supporting Dumanis. But since he couldn’t do so legally (foreign nationals cannot contribute to U.S. elections), he instead funneled the money through a shell company based in America, the complaint alleges. Since the donation accounted for more than half the committee’s total bankroll, the shell company had to appear in the committee name, per election rules: “San Diegans for Bonnie Dumanis for Mayor 2012, Sponsored by Airsam N492RM, LLC.”
CityBeat’s Dave Maass questioned the legality of the PAC when it filed its paperwork, noting the shell company was tied to Azano, who couldn’t legally donate. Republican political consultant Kevin Spillane, who was managing the PAC’s fundraising, told Maass the donation was legit because Azano had a green card. He didn’t, according to the court filing.
Azano, Encinas and Spillane couldn’t be reached for comment.
In all, the illegally funded PAC spent $114,000 supporting Dumanis, according to the complaint.
But that wasn’t all Azano is alleged to have done to help Dumanis in spring 2012.
He also, according to the filing, sent emails to Singh, the CEO of a company called ElectionMall Inc., which provides social media services to political campaigns. Azano agreed to spend an additional $100,000 for Internet-based campaign services on Dumanis’ behalf. Azano made these off-the-books payments from his Mexican-based company to ElectionMall’s account. None of the spending was disclosed, as required by law.
“As a consequence, Singh, Encinas and others successfully concealed the fact that Foreign National (Azano) was the source of this significant, and illegal, campaign financing,” the complaint reads.
Later, in September 2013, the complaint alleges Encinas met with someone associated with Dumanis, about funding her campaign. The associate was working with the FBI as an informant.
Encinas was told Azano couldn’t contribute to Dumanis’ 2014 DA re-election campaign because he didn’t have a green card, but Encinas indicated he could launder the money through a third-party donor from San Diego who he had used to give money to other candidates, the filing says.
Dumanis’ connections with Singh and Encinas go beyond the complaint. Dumanis used Singh’s company for social media services for her current re-election bid for district attorney, according to a campaign disclosure.
Encinas, his family and colleagues at the private security firm he owns have contributed to various Dumanis campaigns.
Over the last couple years, they’ve given at least $9,400 to Dumanis’ mayoral and current district attorney bid, including $3,000 Encinas personally gave to Azano’s pro-Dumanis PAC. Some mayoral donations were later returned because they were earmarked for the general election and Dumanis didn’t make it out of the primary, Dumanis campaign consultant Jennifer Tierney said.
Dumanis has begun scrubbing references to Encinas from campaign materials.
She had listed him and his wife on her campaign page’s endorsement’s list before the scandal broke. Their names are no longer there.
Dumanis also returned Wednesday the $1,400 given by Encinas and his wife to her DA bid, Tierney said.
Dumanis can’t do anything about Encinas’ mayoral donations, Tierney said. Nor could Dumanis have been expected to have done anything about the pro-Dumanis PAC alleged to have started it all, Tierney said. Election rules don’t allow for any coordination between campaigns and PACs that support them.
“It’s not our campaign,” Tierney said. “In general, you just stay as far as you can from these independent expenditure committees.”