Before Jose Susumo Azano Matsura set up a political action committee he allegedly used to funnel illegal donations to District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis’ 2012 mayoral bid, he offered to cut a six-figure check to an existing committee that was already supporting her.

Robert Hickey, president of the Deputy District Attorneys Association, a union for lawyers in the district attorney’s office, said he received the offer “months before” the June mayoral primary.

The offer came from Ernesto Encinas, a retired detective who has since pleaded guilty to facilitating more than $500,000 in donations on Azano’s behalf to San Diego politicians, including Dumanis.

“I said, ‘Ernie what the hell are you talking about? You’re a retired cop!’” Hickey said. “What is a retired detective doing all of a sudden in some political game, talking about six-figure expenditures? I teased him about that.”

The Deputy DAs union has its own political action committee, San Diegans Against Crime, which endorsed Dumanis in the mayoral race. Encinas wanted to route money through that PAC.

Azano, a Mexican citizen, was charged in February with allegedly making illegal contributions to U.S. political campaigns beginning in 2011. He’s pleaded not guilty.

Hickey said it was late 2011 or early 2012 when he bumped into Encinas, whom he crossed paths with occasionally when Encinas worked for the Police Department.

Encinas told him he was working for “a super-wealthy Mexican” who wanted to support Dumanis’ mayoral run.

“He said he had a ton of money, that he was loaded, either with the ‘b’ word, or at least worth many millions,” Hickey said. “He wanted to put it into the mayor’s race, wanted to support Bonnie and asked if he could go through our PAC.”

Hickey didn’t give the interaction much thought until about two years later, when indictments involving Azano and Encinas came out, connecting them to Dumanis and other politicians.

San Diegans Against Crimes’ bylaws don’t allow contributions that are pegged to specific candidates, so Hickey said he turned down the offer before the conversation could get into things like why Azano was suddenly interested in San Diego politics or why he was so keen on Dumanis’ candidacy.

“We weren’t going to do it,” he said. “It’s outside the bylaws and interests of our group, so we didn’t go down the path of finding out if it was a bona fide offer. It wouldn’t have surprised me if it was the type of thing that wasn’t going to come to pass anyway, so I never thought twice about it.”

Hickey wouldn’t say whether he discussed the interaction with federal officials after the scandal broke, but said he hasn’t kept the encounter to himself.

“I’m a prosecutor, so, let’s just say this isn’t a secret,” he said. “Many people on the (Deputy DAs Association) board know about this. Many on the PAC board know this. … It’s not a secret that Ernie reached out to us,” he said.

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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