On Tuesday, the U.S. attorney’s office announced charges against two individuals in a complex campaign finance scheme. And the local political and media worlds exploded.
This guy, Ravneet Singh, was taken into custody.
Singh founded a company called ElectionMall and was a social media consultant to election campaigns.
The feds also charged this guy, Ernesto Encinas, with conspiracy to commit offenses against the United States.
They are both accused of helping a very wealthy Mexican citizen named Jose Susumo Azano Matsura donate to local political campaigns. As a foreign national, Azano is not allowed to donate to campaigns in the United States.
Here’s how the U-T described Azano:
Jose Susumo Azano Matsura may be better known in his home country, where he is regarded as a prominent businessman from a wealthy family.
Among the companies Azano operates in Mexico and the United States is Security Tracking Devices SA de CV, a Jalisco business that designs and installs computer security products.
Here’s a picture.
He lives here in Coronado. There was a lot of activity at his house Wednesday. An FBI agent confirmed that two search warrants were executed in Coronado Wednesday, related to this case.
Encinas and Singh allegedly helped funnel more than $500,000 to committees working to elect local politicians. Four primary candidates were targets for the support.
The U.S. attorney would not name the candidates but journalists have been able to piece together who they are.
Candidate 1: District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis
Dumanis was running for mayor in 2012. From the beginning, her campaign struggled and she lagged behind her three rivals in polls.
But as the election neared, then-CityBeat writer Dave Maass noticed that an independent committee had been set up to support her out of nowhere. He dug in and realized a foreign national was behind the funding. He presciently wondered how that was legal.
Azano allegedly funneled $100,000 through Airsam N492RM LLC, which appears to be a shell corporation.
Encinas donated $3,000 to the committee. The PAC ultimately spent about $114,000.
Azano also apparently agreed to pay Singh for about $100,000 in social media services to help Dumanis. This spending wasn’t reported.
Dumanis has acknowledged that she knew Encinas and met Azano.
This is everything we know so far about Dumanis’ connection to the accused individuals. She knew Encinas from his time as a police officer and calls him “Ernie.”
She’s facing a tough re-election campaign against this guy, Robert Brewer:
Candidate 2: Likely U.S. Rep. Juan Vargas
Prosecutors say that in September 2012, Encinas allegedly approached a representative of a federal candidate and offered to arrange a donation. The representative told Encinas he needed to show proof that Azano had a green card and that he couldn’t donate through a corporation.
Encinas later worked with a straw donor to send $30,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the group that works to help elect Democrats to the House.
Rep. Juan Vargas hasn’t denied he’s the person dubbed Candidate 2 in the complaint.
Vargas seems to also have known Encinas quite well. As a congressman, Vargas got the opportunity to choose a symbolic elector for the 2012 presidential electoral college.
He chose Encinas.
Vargas told us he is “offended by the actions of these individuals” if the accusations prove true.
He said he would return Encinas’ donations.
Candidate 3: Former Mayor Bob Filner
Singh, Encinas and others allegedly approached a representative for then-mayoral candidate Bob Filner in October 2012 and said they could provide cash for social media work. Someone who later became a confidential informant asked for a price quote and was told the expense would be covered. The informant later agreed to the social media spending, knowing it wouldn’t be reported in campaign finance filings.
Bank records show Azano’s company transferred about $190,000 to ElectionMall, Singh’s campaign service company, and that he worked with a straw donor to write a $120,000 check to a pro-Filner independent expenditure committee. Another $30,000 check later followed.
Singh’s company produced tweets and messages like these.
Candidate 4: Likely Former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher
When it became clear Filner was resigning, Encinas apparently called the confidential informant and asked whether an unidentified candidate – likely former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher – would consider running for mayor and whether he’d be interested in “foreign investment” in his campaign.
The informant, who hadn’t been contacted by the FBI yet, told Encinas the campaign financing “has got to be clean” given that practices in the last election hadn’t officially been cleared.
The Desire to See the Police Chief Fired
In late August 2013, the confidential informant met Encinas and another person at a downtown hotel without Candidate 4’s knowledge. At a later meeting, prosecutors say that Encinas said he could create a series of companies or committees to hide Azano’s contributions.
About a month later, Encinas contacted another person involved with the campaign and they met at a coffee shop. This person, who was a second confidential informant, asked Encinas about ways to contribute that wouldn’t be detected and Encinas said he could funnel cash through a straw donor.
At this same meeting, Encinas sought a guarantee that the mayoral candidate would fire Police Chief Bill Lansdowne and replace him with someone Encinas chose.
So far, Lansdowne and the SDPD have stayed silent on the issue.
Wednesday, local lobbyist Marco Polo Cortes was charged with conspiring to finance political campaigns with money from an illegal foreign source. FBI special agent Darrell Foxworth told us that Cortes refused to come out of his house initially, emerging after negotiations.
Cortes and Encinas were something of a lobbying duo on “vice” and “entertainment” enforcement policies of the San Diego Police Department. CityBeat’s Kelly Davis found them on Councilwoman Marti Emerald’s calendar, for instance.
Here’s an example of a meeting last year:
You can see Cortes Communications’ clients here.
The Straw Donor
The prosecutors’ complaint alleges Azano wrote a $380,000 check to a “straw donor.” This donor, who isn’t identified in the complaint, appears to be La Jolla car dealer Marc Chase, who donated at least $180,000 to Democratic causes in 2012, through his businesses.
His donations recorded in the public finance disclosures time perfectly to the allegations.
Chase gave $120,000 to a committee supporting Filner for mayor. And he gave $30,000 to both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the local Democratic Party.
It’s unclear where the rest of the money prosecutors think Azano gave to the straw buyer ended up.
Chase parties with Azano’s son.
According to a 1999 Forbes profile, Chase (who opened the dealership with brother Bernie) managed to elevate his business to become “the largest dealer of collectible and performance cars in the world.”
A little over a week before the primary in the special mayoral election last November, police arrived at Symbolic Motor Car Company’s showroom on La Jolla Boulevard to find the front window shattered.
The cars were all still there, though. Instead, the U-T reported, a locked glass case was tipped over and smashed. The case held four Breitling for Bentley watches, all stolen. At the time, Chase said their worth totaled $100,000. SDPD agreed the burglars were looking for the watches.
There’s no evidence to the contrary.
The Big Remaining Questions
Why did Azano or just Encinas want Lansdowne fired?
Azano’s support for Dumanis came very late in the campaign. She was far behind in the polls, why did he want to make such a major investment in her efforts?
Did Encinas, Cortes and Azano work with Filner on any policies while he was in office? Encinas and Cortes met with him quite a bit.
Finally, some important perspective.
A word of caution: Mike Zucchet’s story reminds us that not all federal accusations hold water.
— David Rolland (@drolland) January 23, 2014