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A lot has happened in the three months since a campaign finance scandal first rocked San Diego politicos in January.
Back then, we only knew a few local, unnamed politicians had benefited from campaign donations made by a foreign national. The contributions were allegedly facilitated by Ravneet Singh, a social media consultant, and Ernesto Encinas, a former police officer. Both were charged with conspiracy to commit offenses against the U.S., making contributions with the help of yet another anonymous player, a mysterious straw donor.
Singh and a third facilitator, lobbyist Marco Polo Cortes, have pleaded not guilty. Encinas took it on the chin in March, pleading guilty to charges of conspiracy and filing a false tax return.
Here’s some of what we’ve learned since the scandal first dropped.
On Thursday, the straw donor faced the music.
Marc Chase, co-owner of a luxury car dealership in La Jolla, pleaded guilty to eight misdemeanor charges, according to the U-T. He now faces up to eight years in custody and fines of $800,000. Chase’s sentencing hearing is set for Nov. 13.
• The foreign national— Mexican businessman Jose Susumo Azano Matsura — was arrested in February, and has pleaded not guilty. He’s accused of directing $600,000 to local campaigns between 2011 and 2012.
• But for what? Before Azano was named, we learned that the donor wanted to develop San Diego’s bayfront into “Miami West” and that he met with then-Mayor Bob Filner:
Filner and Azano talked about possible development projects along the bayfront, public-private partnerships and other general ideas for San Diego. The source said there was nothing strange, illegal or immoral about the discussion.
“If you’re looking for dirt at that meeting, it didn’t happen,” the source told me.
That said, the source told me lobbyist Marco Polo Cortes and former San Diego Police detective Ernesto Encinas brought up Azano funding an independent expenditure for Filner multiple times after the meeting. It’s illegal for foreign nationals to donate money to American campaigns. Cortes and Encinas have both been charged in the scheme.
The source’s account was supported by entries from Filner’s campaign calendar, which we independently obtained. We don’t know of any subsequent meetings between Filner and Azano, but the calendar does list a walking fundraiser with Cortes and Encinas on Sept. 1. The source also witnessed that meeting.
• Court documents have since confirmed Filner as one of the politicians who received Azano’s money. Rep. Juan Vargas and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis have acknowledged receiving funds but said they had no knowledge the money had been funneled from a third party.
• Dumanis’ name has popped up several times as details of the dealings emerge, and her campaign for re-election chugs along. She said in January she’d return $1,400 given to her campaign by Azano’s wife and a close business associate, and give to charity another $10,000 that was linked to Azano. And a $150 food basket Dumanis got from him in December 2012? That went to the wolves (Read: staff).
• Former Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley isn’t satisfied with those steps, though. Earlier this month, he sent a letter to state Attorney General Kamala Harris, calling for an additional criminal investigation of the donations to Dumanis’ campaign. Cooley has endorsed Bob Brewer, who’s challenging Dumanis.
• The U-T named Ed Clancy, Filner’s former campaign manager, as one of two informants in the case. And state Sen. Ben Hueso and Assemblywoman Shirley Weber both said in January they would return $2,250 donated by Cortes.
Now prosecutors are left to paw through heaps of evidence as they continue to build their case against Azano.