Late Tuesday evening, as details from the campaign finance scandal started slipping out from a federal complaint, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis’ campaign offered a defense of the illegal spending that had happened on her behalf.

Dumanis acknowledged she knew three of the characters described in the complaint, but said she knew nothing of what they were doing with the independent expenditure committee they had set up.

After all, a campaign spokeswoman said, it’s an independent expenditure committee. Campaigns are legally barred from coordinating with such committees.

“It’s not our campaign,” Dumanis campaign consultant Jennifer Tierney said. “In general, you just stay as far as you can from these independent expenditure committees.”

Independent expenditure committees are third-party politically groups that, since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United, can raise unlimited funds from donors, but can’t coordinate with the official campaigns of the politicians they support.

Campaigns may decide it’s best to just steer clear of political action committees (PACs) at all costs, but it’s not true that they can’t have anything to do with each other.

Stacey Fulhorst, executive director of the city’s Ethics Commission, clarified the ban on coordination during this week’s episode of VOSD Radio (which you should subscribe to here):

They absolutely can talk to the candidates that they’re supporting. The ban on coordination applies to communications about the campaign advertisements. So for example the independent committee may not talk to the candidate’s campaign and find out, do they want a television commercial, do they want a radio commercial, when do they want it to air, those are the things that they cannot communicate about.

There is no probation on for example the candidate communicating with potential donors. And pointing out that under the city’s campaign laws, a donor could only give a mayoral candidate $1,000, but because of the Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case, the candidate can tell the donor, “If you’d like to spend more to support me, there’s a committee over there operated by maybe even my former campaign manager or consultant, and you can give them as much money as you want.

That certainly doesn’t mean Dumanis did coordinate with the PAC that supported her, allegedly created and primarily funded by wealthy Mexican surveillance contractor Susumo Azano. Foreign nationals are barred from donating to American political campaigns.

But it does mean that just pointing to the law doesn’t quite tell us whether her campaign had other connections to Azano’s independent expenditure committee, like directing possible donors to the PAC after they had maxed out contributions made directly to Dumanis.

Most people know that they can turn to a PAC without even being told, Fulhorst said.

For obvious reasons I can’t comment on any particular pending matters but I will say that just because people can communicate about expenditure-related activity doesn’t mean that they do.

And let’s understand that now that we’ve all had three or four years after the Supreme Court ruling and these independent expenditure committees have increased in popularity, there’s now, you don’t even have to have a discussion. There’s a built-in assumption that the people who want to support your campaign will go out and from an independent committee to support you.

Dumanis’ camp maintains it had nothing to do with the independent expenditure committee, and there’s no evidence to the contrary, even if she acknowledges having previously met with Azano.

But it would have been possible to do so without necessarily violating the law Dumanis cited – a fact that’s obscured by the defense her team gave.

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at

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